(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — A bumpy ride is a bummer. Not only is it a bummer, it could damage a vehicle. The culprit, often, is potholes — those pockets of bad luck where the pavement has worn away. And varying temperatures compound the issue.

Here’s how it happens: Roadways are littered with cracks. When it rains or when the snow melts, that moisture seeps through the cracks into the roadway. Then, when the temperature drops, the moisture freezes (thereby expanding) pushing against the pavement and forming a gap between the ground and the roadway. A car passes over that pavement, and the weight of the vehicle causes the roadway to collapse into the gap. Voila — a pothole is born.

This winter has seen wild temperature swings in Northwest Pennsylvania. Over Christmas weekend, temperatures only reached a high of negative degrees for several days. Then it was unseasonably warm for a week or two. On Sunday, Jan. 29, Erie neared 40 degrees with rain, and the forecast suggests that the warm day will be followed by at least three days without temperatures getting above freezing. That’s bad for roads.

“Every time you see snow fall down and warm up and melt away, and then repeat that — that’s when you’re going to see those potholes pop up,” said Jill Harry, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation press officer for the Northwest Region. “The best thing for us in winter is when it gets cold if it would just stay cold — that’s the easiest thing on the roads.”

In the fall, it’s a common sight to see road crews walking along the roadway with a wand-shaped tool. They’re crack-sealing. Sealing the cracks in the roadway prevents the moisture from seeping through the pavement and into the ground where it can do damage. But not every crack can be sealed, and if the winter has wild swings, the road will get bumpy.

“I know we get comments about potholes almost year-round, but this time of year especially and then again in the spring when it warms up again, people start noticing them,” Harry said.

At this time of year, the damage that’s done is done. Fixing a pothole uses materials that require a certain temperature to be completely set. That doesn’t mean that PennDOT doesn’t do anything to address any potholes — there is constant work to mitigate the pothole problem, but those are mere bandages for an ailment that requires surgery.

“If we have warmer stretches, crews will get out to do at least temporary pothole repairs. They fill in and smooth out the ride,” Harry said. “We might have to fill the same pothole several times because we can’t make those same permanent repairs until the weather is much warmer.”

It’s in the summer that crews aim to fix the potholes entirely. And PennDOT has other plans for construction seasons.

“Our two main winter functions are handling the weather, and planning for what else we’re going to do. We actually have an idea of what we’re going to do sometimes years in advance,” Harry said. “Right now, we have a plan of what we’re doing in the spring, and then we’ll hire inspection staff and we’ll begin awarding contracts.

“We also don’t want to start all of our projects on the same day and at the same time, so we’ll be planning all of that out and the order it will be.”

When damage is done to a vehicle or property by a state agency, a claim can be filed. While a claim can be filed through the Bureau of Finance and Risk Management, potholes are specifically exempted by state law and pothole claims are likely to be denied.

But there still is something that citizens can do in the fight against potholes. The PennDOT customer care center is available through the PennDOT website (go to penndot.pa.gov and click “submit concern“). There, potholes can be reported, and there’s even a tool to mark the location of the pothole.

“That’s the easiest way for us to handle it. When we get a report, we can go out there and look at that area and determine how to prioritize,” Harry said. “This time of year, we see a lot of pothole comments come in. In October and November, we see a lot of roadkill reports come in. In the summer, there’s a lot more concern about particular construction projects.

“People use it seasonally.”