A season of potholes to mar any ball joint

After a rough winter, a steady succession of rims and tires are getting bent and ripped up.

On a rainy night in Worcester, Mass., Mark Abasciano was driving his Mazda when suddenly, "kaboom."

He hit a crater that blew his tire out. Even worse, he hit a second pothole immediately afterward. "With no air in the tire, it gave a good bend to the rim," he says.

And then, when he pulled over, a total of six other cars were parked on the shoulder with flashing blinkers and burst tires.

It's that time of year for steel-bending potholes, the kind that make motorists wonder if navigating highways has become an off-road experience. Many of the craters dip down to the roadbed - about a seven-inch drop - which makes for an encounter decidedly unlike those ads that show new cars slaloming along a coastal highway.

Highway experts are calling this one of the worst pothole seasons in years because it has been so cold and wet in many parts of the United States. While there is no official national pothole count, there are people who know good years from bad. One of those is Richard Lucas, owner of Vehicle Brake and Alignment on the north side of Chicago.

"I have never seen as many bent rims," he says, recalling a five-foot diameter, one-foot deep pothole on a bridge near his shop that gave him seven desperate customers in a week.

And Dean Pellegrino, owner of California Tire in Thousand Oaks, recalls one recent rainy day when he saw a line of 10 to 12 cars on the 101 freeway waiting for tow trucks. "We've been real busy," he says.

Asphalt from the Hill?

All that bumping and jarring comes at a time when Congress has yet to complete work on a $283.9 billion transportation bill that will help to provide some much-needed money for asphalt. The legislation passed the House in March but still needs to be voted on in the Senate.

"Our roads are in desperate need of repair, expansion, and maintenance," says Mantill Williams, a spokesman for AAA in Washington. "We need something urgent to make an impact."

Laurie Klingensmith of Westlake, Ohio, can relate to the concept of urgent need. Recently, she was driving on I-90 in Cleveland when her Saab's front tire caught in a deep rut that ran along the seam of the elevated highway. It shredded instantly.

She pulled off to the side of the road while 18-wheelers raced by at 70 miles per hour. The repair service was so busy it couldn't come for two hours. Instead, her boyfriend did the heavy lifting.

"A policeman pulled up behind us with his flashers on to give us some protection, and he said he had been doing this all night," recalls Joe Mosbrook, who wielded the tire iron.

Some communities seem more than aware that their roads resemble lunar surfaces. Last week in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is up for reelection in the fall, braved pouring rain to ceremonially dump asphalt in a Queens pothole. So far, the city has filled 178,000 potholes following what a city official termed "a rough winter."

To find the divots in its roads, the city of Grand Junction, Colo., has initiated a contest. Residents are encouraged to report places in need of a patch. At first, the city said it would give a prize - a free front-end alignment - to the person reporting the largest pothole. Now, it's a random drawing.

"We had visions of people making them bigger than they already are," says Sam Rainguet, communications and community relations director.

For many, the winter has been a costly experience that they hope someone else will pay for. Mr. Abasciano says he spent $352.50 and has now filed a claim with the city. He's waiting for a reply.

The science of potholes

In the East, potholes are frequently caused by a void under the surface of the road. Water seeps into the area and then freezes. Since water expands when frozen, something has to give, and it's usually the pavement.

But even Los Angeles, where the thermometer rarely reads 32 degrees, has seen a rise in potholes and resultant damage. Mr. Pellegrino thinks it's been a combination of near record-setting rain, the state's budget problems, and heavy use of roads.

He says part of the problem is also the way manufacturers are building cars. The rims are larger and the tires are smaller, resulting in a lower profile. "There is less of an air chamber to absorb a violent hit," he says.

In addition, he says cars no longer use frames but are all one body. "Actually, the alignment moves in and out as the vehicle goes over speed bumps, expansion joints, and potholes."

The new body types make it more difficult to keep the car in alignment, says Pellegrino, who recently invented an award-winning alignment adapter for the new wheels and tires.

Potholes have been the mother of invention in other instances. Recently, a high school robotics team in Agawam, Mass. (some residents call it the birthplace of the pothole), was trying to come up with an idea to submit for a grant to the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, which encourages students to solve a problem through invention. As ideas were tossed around, John Burns, the high school adviser, said he had to leave to pick up his wife's Ford Taurus, which was being repaired after hitting a 10-inch deep pothole. Someone else said their car was also in the shop. "Another kid said, 'Let's just fix potholes,' " says Mr. Burns.

The robotics team then designed a machine that uses ground-penetrating radar to locate potential potholes and then fill them with an epoxy. The school now has a provisional patent on the device.

Robert Tuttle contributed to this report.

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