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Veli Talybov, 48 of Oak Park and a tire technician, works on balancing a tire at Wetmore's Tire and Auto in Ferndale on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press

Drivers who have replaced blown tires and cracked rims after hitting a pothole may experience loss of steering or braking control in the coming months if their vehicles aren't examined for hidden damage, safety officials warn.

Auto technicians say engine parts are shifting and breaking in response to driving damaged roads during the winter. If cars are not repaired, the hidden damage will lead to accidents and pedestrian injury as driving increases with warmer temperatures.

This year was one of the worst for potholes in Michigan in particular. But the street craters are found just about everywhere.

"Damage done to cars in Michigan is definitely a safety issue," said Susan Hiltz, public affairs director for AAA Michigan. "We recommend that all drivers visit a local certified mechanic to avoid potentially serious dangers, especially with the summertime driving season approaching."

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Incredibly, emergency road service for AAA Michigan saw a 36% spike in calls for February and March 2018 compared with a year ago.

The calls for help continue.

Ken Wilson, service manager at Wetmore Tire & Auto in Ferndale, Mich., said pothole damage has been some of the worst he has seen in 32 years. One customer just had $1,400 worth of repairs to bent wheels and broken components not seen by the naked eye that can directly impact steering capability.

Wilson described what's happening all over the state. Auto safety experts say, though, that people are worried about costly repair bills and avoid going in for vehicle inspections. 

Mechanics say pothole repairs generally range in cost from $80 to $1,000 and people react to crisis rather than crash prevention. High-performance vehicles with so-called low-profile tires, credited with better handling at high speeds, are experiencing the worst pothole damage. Auto technicians refer to "little bitty tires" on bigger wheels as a trend now.

Doug Randall, store manager at Belle Tire in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., said he's still seeing customers come in with bent and cracked rims after feeling vibration while driving, plus sidewall bubbles that indicate air is escaping the tire. That can lead to a blowout if not repaired or replaced.

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Laura and Anders Soderberg of Harrison Township have spent nearly $3,000 on vehicle repairs caused by potholes, which can’t be avoided along Metro Parkway.
Soderberg Family

In Ferndale, drivers are going into the shop with wheels shaped like eggs or footballs, said Chris Lynch, owner of Wetmore. Bent wheels are a major issue at his shop.

Many drivers feel something unusual and shrug it off, and that's dangerous, said John Latner, manager of technical training for ACDelco, whose program trained 34,000 auto and truck technicians nationally in 2017.

"There are too many components hidden from view. Vibrations, clunks, knocks, rattles, squeaks? Don't ignore noises. It could result in a crash because you chose to ignore warning signs. Get into a shop."

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He added, "Just because you don't see anything doesn't mean there isn't a safety concern. You may not see a belt shift, a cracked control arm or corrosion that makes damage worse. This all decreases steering and control issues. Once a crack becomes a break, you have separation of steering components."

The most frequently fractured and broken vehicle frame parts are steering and suspension, such as bushings, control arms, ball joints, tie rods, shock absorbers and struts.

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Tire technician Veli Talybov, 48, of Oak Park patches a tire inside Wetmore's Tire and Auto in Ferndale on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press

Getting vehicles realigned after a rough season like the 2017-18 winter is essential, Latner said. "People will say, 'Well, all you did was replace a ball joint or put a tie rod on. Why do I need an alignment?' Sometimes there's damage even a technician can't see. Get the car aligned."

ACDelco, the primary supplier of General Motors' original equipment automotive replacement parts, also provides training and aftermarket auto parts for other makes and models.

Thing is, potholes don't discriminate based on vehicle make or model.

Matthew McAllister, store manager at Goodyear Auto Service in Royal Oak, said the season is the worst he has seen in 25 years.

People come into his shop suspecting a flat tire and it's a bent rim.

"They think they picked up a nail or it's just a flat," McAllister said. "We had a man come in with two damaged wheels and he was surprised by the suspension damage. We see Mercedes, BMW, Lincoln, Cadillac, Audi."

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Goodyear Auto Service is offering free alignment checks, free wheel and tire checks and free shocks/struts checks through April statewide.

While some people think the worst passed with the arrival of spring, mechanics say customer visits indicate potholes aren't anywhere near being fixed.

"We just dropped almost $3,000 on the 2016 Chevy Impala LTZ," said Anders Soderberg, 52. "The road is still so bad. She had two bent wheels and then hit another pothole. In all, we've had three wheels reconditioned. They're not even brand new. Plus four tires."

Soderberg, a master mechanic by training, hit another pothole on the way to the airport. "This is the worst we've ever had."

He, unlike most drivers, knew to get the vehicle aligned.

"If you take an impact hard enough to bend a wheel, there's a good chance you have other damage," he said. "And the roads are still bad."