As soon as spring has sprung, or even before, the open road seems to open up — with potholes. And in some towns and cities, road maintenance sometimes falls through the cracks, which means your car can fall in them. Potholes can get you, and your car, into deep trouble, especially if you don’t see them coming. (Maybe because you were sneaking peeks at your phone or failing to maintain a safe following distance.)

In fact, pothole damage costs U.S. drivers $3 billion annually in vehicle repairs according to AAA. On average, the study found drivers reported paying $300 to repair pothole-related vehicle damage. Common damage included flat tires, bent wheels and broken suspension components.

Potholes form when moisture collects in small holes and cracks in the road surface. The moisture expands and contracts with freezing and thawing, breaking up the road surface. Under the weight of passing cars, the pavement eventually gives way and turns into a pothole, according to AAA.

Related: How to Change a Flat Tire

After this year’s hot and cold winter weather, we might see a few more potholes on the road. AAA offers these tips to help protect your car from pothole damage.

  • Stay alert. Scan the road ahead and maintain a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of you. Avoid any puddles of water as they may be disguising a pothole.
  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated (check your inflation both before and after you hit a pothole) and that you have adequate thread depth. To check the tread depth, insert a quarter into the tread groove with Washington’s head upside-down. The tread should cover part of his head. If it doesn’t, it’s time to get new tires.
  • Slow down and straighten. Hitting a pothole at a lower speed can decrease the risk of damage to your tires, wheels and suspension. If you see a pothole ahead, check your rearview mirror before hitting the brakes. Straighten your wheel before going over the pothole.

Prepare yourself for pothole season by checking your spare tire and inflator kit to make sure they're in good condition. If you have a newer car, check to make sure you even have a spare tire. Some new cars today come without spare tires. Potholes often puncture the tire in a way that can’t be quickly repaired with an inflator kit, so it's important to have a spare.

If you fall hard into a pothole, AAA recommends you do the following before continuing your journey:

Inspect your tires. Tires can be cut, torn or punctured in a way that can't be fixed.

Listen for strange noises or vibrations. A pothole run-in can dislodge wheel weights, damage a tire or break your car’s suspension components. If you hear any new noises or vibrations, take your car in.

Check the alignment. Potholes can often knock the wheels out of alignment and affect your steering. If your car pulls to the left or right, have a mechanic look into it.

Related: Don't Let a Car Mechanic Take You For a Ride

Who is liable for the damage?

It depends. Some cities, like Michigan, look over claims and investigate their validity. In Michigan, you must prove that the state's department of transportation was at fault. For example, you need to show proof the problem existed for more than 30 days, according to the MDOT. But don't hold your breath for a check. “Few claims are eligible for payment because potholes develop quickly,” notes the department.

Contact your city government to find out its policy on paying for pothole damage.

How to report a pothole

A lot of cities, like Chicago, have online forms that allow you to report a pothole. Most interstate and state highways are under the care of your state's department of transportation. Reach out to them if you spot a pothole. For city and county roads, contact the corresponding city or county for more information.

Related: 5 Things that Make Your Car Insurance Cost More (and 2 Surprising Things That Don’t)

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Muriel Vega is a writer with a passion for budget travel and staying safe while abroad. A Georgia State University graduate, she has over 6 years of editorial experience and has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Billfold, among other outlets. In her free time, you can find her baking pies, playing with her two dogs and cat, or planning her next vacation. She spends way too much time on Twitter, one of her favorite social media channels. Her favorite safety tip: Make sure you have all the necessary shots before you go abroad.