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The Horror of Potholes

Big pothole caused by freezing and thawing during spring season

Some potholes are just little cracks. And some could swallow an Escalade. Which is kind of the point: potholes grow bigger the longer they are left unfixed. They are almost alive.

The real horror of potholes is not just how they grow, but why we seem to be seeing more every day. America went on a road building extravaganza after World War II, allowing returning soldiers and their Baby Boom families to live and work further out from cities. America’s population doubled from 1949 (about 150 million people) to 2006, when it hit 300 million. As the population grew, so did the number of people driving, the volume of goods purchased per person that needed transporting, and the miles driven between home and work. More people, more driving per person, and it all adds up to road use.

Those roads are now 50 years old. A few younger, many older. And roads aren’t forever. Northerners swear potholes are the product of winter’s freeze-thaw cycles. And they are correct. But even subtropical areas that rarely experience freezing temperatures have notorious road repair problems too.

Once there is an opening, water seeps into pavement. It might expand and contract in freeze-thaw cycles. Water can also, in sufficient quantities, wash out the lower layers of stone and dirt supporting the surface layer. In warmer climates not subject to freeze-thaw cycles, the problem begins with heat-caused deterioration. Cracks from the heat allow water in, eroding the sub-surface layers. In either case, an air gap is formed in the sub-base of the pavement.

As vehicles pass over these sub-surface gaps, the top layer sags, collapses and crumbles. A pothole is born.



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