The car in front of you suddenly lurches into the next lane. Drunken driver? Spilled coffee? This week, the most likely answer is potholes as the dreaded freeze/thaw cycle turns our streets into giant muffin tins.
Given that potholes are inevitable until spring comes, here's some advice to show those road hazards who's boss.
How can you prepare? Start by giving your tires a fighting chance. Free-falling temperatures can lower tire pressure and you want to have a good air cushion if the worst happens. Tires should be inflated to the manufacturer's specifications, which are listed in the owner's manual or on a sticker on the driver's-side door jamb.
Plow through or swerve? Some of the worst injuries occur during head-on collisions, warns Kane County sheriff's Lt. Pat Gengler. It's second nature to swerve to avoid a pothole, but it could be a fatal decision. Slow down, limit the distractions, check your mirrors and be aware of the surrounding traffic when you're in pothole territory.
"When you're in control of a big piece of metal going 25 mph to 75 mph, a lot of bad things can happen if you're not paying attention," Gengler said.
What if you've hit a big pothole? Even if there's nothing obviously wrong such as a flat tire, experts recommend pulling into a gas station or parking lot to inspect for problems. Potholes can knock the wheels out of alignment and mess up steering or suspension, so be on alert for unusual noises or vibrations, AAA advises.
What causes potholes? Water expands about 10 percent when it freezes. When moisture gets into cracks in roads, freezes, then thaws and freezes again, it breaks up the pavement. Unfortunately, warmer temperatures Monday and Tuesday to be followed by a colder temperatures Wednesday suggest trouble ahead.
"One of the challenges created by the big thaw has been controlling moisture and standing water on the roads," Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways spokesman Frank Shuftan said. The snow and ice have blocked drains, meaning lots of places for water to seep into cracks and fissures, he said.
Which holds up better -- concrete or asphalt? "Asphalt can sometimes be a more porous material than concrete depending on the depth of the asphalt surface. As a result, it can be more prone to a freeze-thaw cycle," Shuftan said.
However, DuPage County Transportation Committee Chairman Don Puchalski said it's all about maintenance. "The condition of the pavement keeps moisture from penetrating the riding surface," Puchalski said.
Can't we build pothole-proof roads? Engineering professor Imad Al-Qadi thinks we can do better. "Through better engineering of the materials and pavement systems, roads can withstand extreme temperatures and cycles of freezing and thawing," Al-Qadi wrote in an email.
For asphalt, using proper binder and aggregate materials that aren't susceptible to moisture, freezing or thawing can minimize damage.
For concrete, using the right chemical mixtures can control freezing and thawing. Proper spacing and using more steel in the concrete slabs can also control warping, Al-Qadi said.
"The important point here is quality control," said Al-Qadi, director of the Illinois Center for Transportation, a research facility affiliated with the University of Illinois.
Where are the worst potholes? That's a matter of opinion, but the Illinois tollway reported an outbreak on the Jane Addams Tollway between Route 45 and Route 20 on older pavement to be rebuilt this year, spokesman Dan Rozek said.
Where can you report a pothole? If you spot a crater on a state highway or road, report it to the Illinois Department of Transportation at (800) 452-4368 or www.dot.il.gov/Email/Email.asp?from=1. To seek reimbursement for state road pothole-related repairs, learn more at www.dot.il.gov/claims/claimsinformation.asp.
On the Illinois tollway, call *999 on your cellphone to make a pothole report. To file a claim, go to www.illinoistollway.com/roadway-information/insurance.
Elsewhere, check whether the pothole is on a county road or municipal street and contact the appropriate authorities. Reimbursement policies vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.