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Winter Takes a Toll on Cars, Forces Them Into Body Shops

With business booming, this time of year brings numerous cars off the roadways and into body shops, as vehicles fall victim to some of winter's worst: potholes and salt corrosion.

As the '13-'14 winter unfolded, multiple snowstorms brought swaths of snow, plenty of ice and bone-chilling air to areas of the Northeast and Southeast.

By February, expense records across the nation were shattered, as this winter required millions of tons of salt and record-breaking maintenance costs including, labor, materials and equipment.

"It's just apart of living in the Northeast. We don't really have hurricanes, tornadoes or massive floods, but we have to deal with winter. It's the tradeoff," said J.R. Vratarich, co-owner of Tire Town in State College, Pa.

A harsh freeze-thaw cycle accompanied by a slew of salt atop the roadways have created numerous potholes, more than 145,000 in just New York City, across the region.

Potholes Plague the Northeast

"We're just in the beginning of pothole season to be honest, but it's only going to get increasingly worse," said Mike Veenstra, owner of Veenstra Garage in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Due to the unexpectedness of hitting a pothole, it's important to assess the damage from this menace as quickly as possible. If possible, pull over and look at the vehicle for obvious damage.

"Depending on how you hit the pothole you can have a wide range of damage," said Vratarich.

The most common issues brought forth by potholes deal with the tires. Most often, drivers experience a detached wheel or cracked rim. Suspension is another common problem that affects a vehicle's handling," said Vratarich.

A visit to the mechanic is also necessary when a vehicle rolls or sways on turns, the front end dives when braking or has loss of directional control during sudden stops.

"Suspension components fail and whenever you hit a bump so do the tires and alignment and, at first, a lot of drivers don't realize they are having problems until it is too late," said Veenstra. "Every year we see people come into the garage and spend money fixing winter weather-related issues and it's a grudge purchase because it is really tough to prevent something like this. You can't swerve and miss potholes in fear of causing an accident and, if you're driving and they are filled with water, you probably won't even see the pothole. It's tough."

This winter in particular has been tough on a lot of major highways, and state transportation crews are trying to keep ahead of the problem. To aid staff members in maintaining the problem, contact the city or state to report where potholes are a problem and help the crews locate the ones that could cause vehicle damage.

Grand Rapids, Mich., was hit especially hard this winter with a total of 110.7 inches of snow so far, which is two-thirds higher than the city's normal amount, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Jim Andrews.

"Just two blocks from my garage, you'll see signs everywhere from MDOT warning drivers of bumpy roads covered in potholes. I'm not surprised because weather-wise we've had quite the record-breaking year here [in Grand Rapids],"said Veenstra.

These extreme winter conditions, along with a few warm days, make Grand Rapids a prime target during pothole season.

Salt Exposure Causes Corrosion

While salt is necessary on roads and highways to keep drivers safe when out in slick, wintry weather, salt also has some serious negative impacts on cars. The brine solution in salt specifically damages the steel parts of the car.

"When salt sits, it finds its way though your vehicle's paint layers and latches on to metal where it begins to rust," said Veenstra.

Rust is another undesirable effect of road salt on key car parts.

"We see a lot of long-range salt-related problems for cars. The body can rust out, and steel break and fluid lines rust as well and can be costly to repair,"said Vratarich.

To ward off salt on a vehicle and avoid damage, the easiest solution is to wash the car occasionally during the winter months.

"I don't think that is very realistic because once a snowstorm is over, another one starts and it's crazy to think that you can keep up with that many car washes. Keeping the car in a garage is a luxury that many drivers often overlook," Vratarich said.

While repeat washing is unrealistic, Anthony Bruno of Anthony's Auto Salon in Philadelphia recommends waxing to keep corrosion at bay.

"You should have your car waxed four times a year, and it protects your car from things such as dirt and salt getting into the wrong places. If you do just go for a wash, the large brushes that clean your car are pretty good at removing the dirt and salt on their own as well," Bruno said. "You can spend the money on a complete detail and ask for waxing or an application of a $150 coating job if that is the route you'd want to go," said Veenstra.

As winter begins to thaw, the best thing that can be done for vehicles without making a major impact on the wallet is to ask the experts.

"Always ask whoever is working on your car specific questions. The staff should know what's best for your vehicle. It's like when you go to the doctor, and even if you don't have a bad heart, they always check your blood pressure. Mechanics should do a thorough checkup," said Veenstra.