Ready for Winter to End? Prepare for Potholes

By Matt Schmitz  on February 27, 2014

Despite the proclamations of "Richard III," now is decidedly not the winter of our discontent. As weather forecasts for the Northeast and Midwest show continued freezing temperatures — between 10 and 30 degrees below normal for this time of year — no warm up is in sight at least into the first week of March. But if you think you're discontented by winter now, wait until the big thaw comes and you attempt to make your commute to work without your car becoming the stuff of a Shakespearean tragedy. Why? Potholes.

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Those car-hating craters thrive on winter's freeze-thaw cycle. First, water seeps into the soil and a road's subbase below the pavement, and during frigid temperatures the water freezes and expands, pushing the pavement upward. As the weather warms, the ice melts and forms cavities underneath, while the surface of the roadway remains elevated — that is, until cars travel overtop the cavities, crushing the compromised layer of pavement and forming a pothole.

"Driving in these conditions is bad for your tires, your suspension and your vertebrae," a Feb. 23 editorial in the Chicago Tribune lamented. "Your regular commute feels like a minefield. It's not just a matter of dodging the giant potholes; you also have to dodge the cars that veer into your path while swerving around the giant potholes in their own lanes."

States and cities in the nation's cold-weather states have been scurrying to keep up with damage control, which requires shoveling asphalt into the pothole and packing it down, leaving the top of the fill slightly above the pavement to settle. The Tribune's editorial reported Chicago city workers had filled 165,000 potholes since Jan. 1. According to Bloomberg, Indianapolis as of Feb. 24 had already outspent its winter maintenance budget by nearly $5 million, while New York crews have filled a record 113,131 potholes — more than double the number patched by the same point in 2013. In fact, about three-fourths of U.S. states have already depleted their budgets for winter maintenance, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials told Bloomberg.

While that darned groundhog in Pennsylvania virtually guaranteed that our winter misery will continue for at least a couple more weeks, the pothole situation could stretch on for much longer once the weather warms up and the true extent of the damage gradually reveals itself. But while we can neither control the weather nor the damage it causes to our roadways, Allstate insurance says there are simple ways drivers can prevent damage to their vehicles.

"One of the most important things people can do is to make sure their tires are adequately inflated," Anthony Royer, president of Allstate Roadside Services, said in a statement. "This helps to protect and cushion the rim of your tire from damage."

Other pothole-related prevention tips from Allstate include:

  • Leaving plenty of room in front of your vehicle so you can avoid potholes without crashing.
  • In the event that you can't avoid a pothole, slowing down before hitting it, without braking, which can cause greater damage.
  • Holding the steering wheel firmly when driving over a pothole to avoid losing control.
  • Using caution and driving slowly over a puddle of water or through the snow, both of which could be hiding a deep pothole.
  • Contacting your car-insurance provider immediately if you do incur damage from a pothole to determine whether you should file a claim. Some cities offer reimbursement through the local government for pothole damage.

Ahmed Mobarki/iStock/Thinkstock

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News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers.  Email Matt