No Fixed Abode: Night of the Potholes

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode night of the potholes

In So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, Douglas Adams introduces the reader to the character of Rob McKenna. Rob is a truck driver; he is also a Rain God. It rains every day of McKenna’s life because the clouds want to be near him. Later on in the book, McKenna starts earning a healthy living from vacation resorts, which pay him to stay away.

I can’t say it’s rained every day of my life. I can say that the weather in my home town improves dramatically the minute I leave. Last week, while I was riding a Road Glide around Los Angeles in a recurring rainstorm, there was an early spring in Ohio. Temperatures went from the mid-twenties to the mid-seventies pretty much overnight and stayed there until my plane was about halfway back home, at which point it started to rain and the mercury dropped twenty degrees. I am not kidding about this.

On the road home, I saw a two-foot-wide hole in the freeway where there had previously been no hole whatsoever. I drove around it. Shortly afterwards, I was confronted by an odd tableau: at least six cars pulled over, covering both shoulders, with their drivers in conversations ranging from dazed to agitated. All of the cars were tilted to some degree, because they all had at least one flat tire. In my rearview mirror, I saw a Subaru coasting to a stop on the right shoulder behind me. It, too, was tilted.

Turns out that was just the beginning.

The sudden heat wave had proven to be too much for Ohio’s long-suffering asphalt freeways. They were developing potholes left and right. Some of them were more like sinkholes than potholes. The local television stations started warning people. A friend of mine, a genial fellow who owns a couple million dollars’ worth of hypercars but likes to avoid contact with strangers, ended up drafting himself into an one-man emergency assistance crew in his neighborhood after close to a dozen cars coasted to a halt in front of him with bent wheels. I’m pretty sure he filled up his annual quota for awkward personal interactions, despite it being only February.

I’ll say this for my fellow Ohio hicks, however; four days after the apocalypse, enough of the holes were filled city-wide that I felt comfortable running my ZX-14R at relatively stout speeds down the freeway well after darkness had fallen. There were a lot of people out there working pretty hard to put the situation right. I’ve heard horror stories from friends on the East Coast about potholes that were old enough to vote, or at least to attend kindergarten; that stuff generally doesn’t happen around here. The public works departments have both funding and motivation. It’s not just true for my jumped-up little suburb, it’s true for the major cities as well.

Still, I couldn’t help but think about all of the diverse driving-related issues that were wrapped up in that long night of flat tires and roadside misery. I’ll just list them below and you can see which ones seem relevant to you.

Penny wise and pound foolish. Concrete freeways cost more to build to begin with. That cost disadvantage, and the fact that some bidding processes have provisions designed to favor asphalt, mean that a lot of freeway surface in central Ohio is asphalt instead of concrete. Which means you have to fix it in a hurry when there’s a major temperature change. This being Ohio, of course there are major temperature changes. So why not spend the money up front and do it right? We could probably do with a little more transparency about how decisions like this are made.

Poor vision and aggressive driving can have consequences. The vast majority of the time there’s no excuse for hitting a pothole. You should be looking far enough ahead to see the pothole and to adjust your lane. Of course, this won’t happen if you are looking right in front of your grille. It also won’t happen if you’re distracted by your phone or your passengers or your lunch. Last but not least, it won’t happen if you are tailgating. I suspect that the first car to hit these potholes slowed down afterwards, which caused a ripple of swerving and aggressive driving behind them, which caused more people to drive directly into the pothole. And this was well after any kind of rush hour. There wasn’t enough traffic on the road to mandate close-coupled driving. Yet people do it anyway. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

The era of mechanical sympathy is over. I’ve watched quite a few people knowingly drive right into potholes over the past week. We’ve all become accustomed to vehicles that don’t break no matter how we mistreat them. Today’s driver expects that his car will be perfect. When things go wrong, his first instinct is to run away and ask for help. (Warning: Don’t watch that video if you want to have any hope for the future of America.)

This kind of stuff sells crossovers and SUVs to people, because it’s easier to write a check than it is to fix your behavior. Nearly every vehicle I saw off the road was a sedan. There was even a Panamera affected, which made me snicker. I guarantee you that some of the pothole-hitters will decide that “an SUV wouldn’t get a flat tire” and they’ll switch to a crossover or truck next time. When I was in my twenties, I observed a precursor of this phenomenon: every co-worker I had who managed to wind up in a wintry ditch decided that they should buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The following year, there were a lot of Grand Cherokees in ditches. At the same time, these SUV intenders aren’t necessarily wrong: the one time I hit a pothole this week was during a lane change where I was watching some fairly insane stuff happen in my rearview mirror so I didn’t look at the road surface as closely as I should have. I hit said pothole pretty hard. I was in my Silverado. Nothing happened. Credit those extra-load tire sidewalls, I guess.

Civilization is more fragile than we give it credit for. When David Brin wrote his take on a collapse-of-society novel, he said that “The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization’s fall. It’s a story about how much we take for granted — and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today.” I will admit that I am occasionally prone to a bit of longing for a so-called “hard reset” in American life, even at the cost of a little unpleasantness. This past week served as a reminder to me that there is an authentic purpose for central government and central authority. I would like to believe that a privately-owned road system would act even faster to fill potholes… but what if they took a Travis Kalanick approach to it and said, “Hey, we have the only roads around there, let them eat cake”… at that point, what can you do? I’m going to try to have a little more faith in my fellow man from now on.

The temperature dropped today, all the way down to a flirtation with freezing. Not to worry. This weekend I’m headed back to California — and the weather is predicted as sixty degrees and sunny. I might come back to find that it has happened all over again. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Do we have time to take it back to the old school? I believe we do…

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  • S_a_p S_a_p on Feb 25, 2018

    Best de la soul song ever.

  • Germanicevich Germanicevich on Feb 26, 2018

    Potholes are a fact of life, same as debris, 4'x8' plywood sheets, large aluminum ladders, rugs (rolled up or flat), occasional appliances and weaving fellow drivers. All merrily sharing the highways. Being 62 years old with a slight handicap in my right arm, full lock maneuvers done with lightning reflexes is not a choice. What I trained myself to do is; focus in the vehicle ahead of me ALL THE TIME, keeping a 2-3 seconds distance (if I'm cut off, I brake immediately to re-establish the gap) and most importantly, avoid TARGET FIXATION. This is a counter-intuitive reaction: fixing your eyes on the EMPTY SPACE around the obstacle because if you look at it, chances are that you'll hit the pothole. Boring but true.

    • Turf3 Turf3 on Feb 27, 2018

      You would be a lot better off if you stopped focusing on the vehicle ahead of you "ALL THE TIME" and instead looked ahead of the vehicle ahead of you. You would also drive a lot better if, instead of focusing on one thing "ALL THE TIME", you were constantly scanning from near distance to far distance, checking mirrors, scanning to the side, etc. Focusing on the vehicle directly ahead is what causes rubber-band slowdowns along with a loss of situational awareness and tunnel vision. Spend some time commuting by bicycle on city streets and you learn about this stuff. Riding in a paceline too. If you are 3" from the rear tire of the guy in front of you, it is absolutely impossible to react to changes in his speed if you are watching his tire. Paceline riders watch what's happening two, three, four, or more riders ahead in the pack.

  • SCE to AUX I like the concept, but $6k just gets you started. I'd have to outsource the bodywork, which is a real problem on a project like this.Still, the result would be a fun vehicle that reflects what many people want today - a small unbloated utility truck.
  • TheDoctorIsOut Try and keep it as light and focused as it always has been and as analog as possible. For those who can appreciate it (and fit into it) there’s still something special about a car that can be driven at 90% of its potential for most of the daily drive.
  • SCE to AUX Let it die with dignity - no electrification. That would kill the spirit of the original.Mazda needs to think about survival and market share, not tinker with a niche car with waning sales, or dying on Wankel Hill.Maybe their body and paint engineers could help Tesla once Mazda folds.
  • Lou_BC H-E-L-L-C-A-T
  • EBFlex "EBFlex speaks more truth."It's sometimes a burden being right all the time.
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