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Early Thaw Leads to a Lot Of Shake, Rattle, and Roll

ALVIN HAGEMAN saw the pothole, but in the pouring rain at expressway speeds there was little he could do to avoid it. Instead, as his 1985 Volvo slammed into the hole, Mr. Hageman says, ''I thought my teeth were going to fall out.''

Hitting the pothole blew out a tire and bent the tire rim. And then it took three hours until Hageman, a Westport, Conn., resident, could get a repair truck to fix the tire. ''It was scary,'' he says.

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As it turns out, Hageman's tale is not unusual. This has become a molar-rattling winter for drivers across much of the Northeast. Not only are there lots of craters in the highways, they have come early because of the January thaw.

''The East Coast has a bumper crop of potholes,'' reports Michael Morrissey, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Heathrow, Fla. Jameel Ahmed, a pothole expert at New York's Cooper Union College says, ''We can expect one of the worst years for potholes.''

This week, two Indianapolis newspapers appealed to their readers for pothole stories. One reader reported a pothole ''about 20 feet long and looks like a plowed field.'' Another reader said it is easier to drive in Bosnia.

Potholes are formed when snow or water seeps into a roadway's cracks. When the water freezes at night, it expands; during the day the water contracts. The expansion and contraction break up the pavement. Normally, this cycle takes place every spring.

Unfortunately for many road crews, the January thaw means filling holes twice. In New York City, which was left with 20,000 potholes from the ''Blizzard of '96,'' the Department of Transportation is employing the ''throw and go'' method. This entails a few minutes of throwing asphalt in the hole and then moving on to the next one.

''You can't blame them [pothole crews], the numbers are too large to spend a lot of time on each one,'' says Patrick Boyle, of New York's AAA.

But some extra time - about 10 to 15 minutes per hole - is worthwhile, argues Mr. Ahmed, chairman of Cooper Union's department of civil engineering, since it helps to prevent continued damage to the roadbed from moisture seeping through the asphalt plug.

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''Before you know it, you have a minefield of potholes,'' he warns.

Repairing potholes is an expensive task. Annapolis, Md., for example, estimates that it costs $200 for a permanent fix and $50 for a temporary patch.

FOR drivers, a pothole encounter can be even more expensive. Hageman estimates it cost him $240 for a new tire and rim. He thinks he needs a front-end alignment as well.

''A lot of people are driving around with pothole damage and don't even know it,'' says Mr. Boyle.

There are not a lot of ways to avoid the craters. Swerving increases the chances of an accident. Boyle suggests avoiding tailgating to improve your chances of driving around or straddling a pothole. In addition, he advises motorists not to slam on the brakes as they hit a pothole, since that only causes more damage.

Boyle says the actual damage to the tire and rim takes place when the wheel comes out of the pothole. The sooner the wheel exits the pothole the better for the car. He compares it to a person falling. If the individual keeps rolling, it spreads the impact and reduces injury. ''You want the tire to roll out as soon as possible,'' he explains.

Service stations also recommend maintaining tire pressure to reduce the chances of getting a flat. And after hitting a series of bad potholes, it might be worthwhile for drivers to have their cars' front-end alignment checked, experts say. This prevents future damage to tires.

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