Suddenly, there’s that jolt, and your vehicle is feeling the hard knocks of a pothole—and you never even saw it coming. Potholes are often a stealth hazard, popping up without warning and where you least expect them. Along with spring comes an increase in potholes, which develop as roads freeze and thaw, eroding the dirt underneath and weakening the blacktop. Richard Retting, director of Safety Research at Sam Schwartz Engineering DPC, the Fairfax, Va. transportation firm, estimates that the nationwide cost of pothole damage this year will run to nearly $6.4 billion. Those devious, hungry craters can take a toll on your vehicle—and a bite out of your wallet.

Fortunately, there are five steps you can take to help minimize their impact:

Road signs: Watch out for puddles—they could be hiding potholes, especially ones that are deceptively deep and can cause the most damage.

Slow your roll: Reducing speed on rough roads helps lessen wear on your vehicle and may protect it from damage if you do encounter a pothole.

Space is the place: The more distance you leave between your car and the one in front, the better your chance of spotting potholes up ahead.

Braking bad: If you do hit a pothole, don’t slam on the brake—it puts extra stress on the front suspension and can cause tire damage.

Air supply: Keep your tires inflated to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure, and check the pressure at least once a month. Maintaining properly inflated tires can help serve as your first line of defense.

Sometimes hitting a pothole is simply unavoidable. Most likely, only your nerves are rattled, but you should always inspect your vehicle as soon as possible for any damage.

Rubber meets the road: Always check the tire pressure after driving over a pothole, and make sure tires are inflated to the recommended pressure (posted on the inside of the driver’s side door, and in the owner’s manual). A properly inflated tire can help reduce damage to wheel rims. If you notice cuts or gashes in the tire or cracked finish on your wheels—which may indicate bent rims—take the car to your local Ford Dealer Service Center, where certified technicians will perform a Multi-Point Inspection of your vehicle. Bent wheels are often difficult to see without putting the tire and wheel assembly on a tire balance machine.

Straight talk: If you have to hold the steering wheel at an angle in order for your vehicle to go straight, or if it consistently pulls to one side, head to your Ford Dealer Service Center, where certified technicians can check your alignment with state-of-the-art equipment. Correcting the alignment can help prevent damage to your tires and help ensure that the vehicle handles smoothly and safely.

The hard facts: Potholes can harm your vehicle. And inspecting for damage early can sometimes help you avoid more costly repairs later. But remember, if you’re ever unsure about the way your car is functioning, head to your local Ford Dealer Service Center to get it checked out. That way you can help ensure the safe handling of your vehicle in a future emergency.

Now drive carefully, and good luck!