Potholes on Western Avenue in Brattleboro.(Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Potholes on Western Avenue in Brattleboro. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

JAMAICA -- As more people are sliding off the road in their vehicles, winter road conditions are becoming a hot topic in towns around the county.

"I think this year we had a little more ice that has caused some more accidents than normal," said Vermont State Police Captain Ray Keefe, D-Troop. "I wouldn't say it's been excessive compared to normal. Unfortunately, it seems we respond to more and more. I think that it's the habits of people driving. I don't think it's any worse than 10 or 20 years ago."

On Jan. 13, Jamaica resident Tom Morris told the Selectboard about his witnessing 11 vehicles that had either veered off the road or were wrecked as a result of drivers using Pike Falls Road during the holidays. He lives on that street.

"Someone's going to get killed on that road," he said.

Off to the side of Pike Falls Road is the North Branch of the Ball Mountain Brook. Morris reported seeing vehicles in the water and people walking up the road after an accident, freezing from the cold temperatures and seeking help. He has been assisting people with vehicles gone off the road for the entire winter as well as previous winters.

GPS systems have been instructing drivers to take Pike Falls Road from Stratton Mountain. The road is considered a back road by locals. There are tight turns and corners that can make it difficult to maneuver when roads are slippery. It had been closed for quite some time following damage from Tropical Storm Irene.

"There's too much traffic on a rural backwoods road," said Morris, mentioning several households in the area with children and pets. "They're going up the dirt roads and missing the commerce."

He suggested that a sign be put up that essentially closes the road to the public, allowing only local traffic. The idea was not shot down by the Selectboard but its legality was questioned.

Selectboard member and Health Officer Andy Coyne said that when roads are in that condition, drivers must slow down. Police often say the same.

"Speed is the key," said Keefe. "You'll see on the interstate, people flying by you. It makes no sense to me. I don't understand that mentality. Have we just become too busy of a society that we can't slow down to save our own lives?"

He told the Reformer that he rarely blames the roads, but rather the people driving.

While assisting at scenes of crashes, Morris said he's seen police officers issue tickets for hazardous driving. Keefe said that a couple years ago, he had pushed for troopers to start issuing tickets to change behaviors.

"But you get out there, there's a wrecked vehicle and these people are in a world of hurt," he added. "Sometimes we don't want to issue a ticket.

Severe mud causes Gibson Road in Brattleboro to be closed to traffic.(Reformer file photo)
Severe mud causes Gibson Road in Brattleboro to be closed to traffic. (Reformer file photo)
It's case by case. We do understand that sometimes wheels get caught up in slush or hit ice. We get that. We don't want to add insult to injury."

On Jan. 8, Wilmington Selectboard member Jake White mentioned that his mailbox had been clipped after Winter Storm Hercules had made his road slippery. That street, Whites Road, has similar features as Pike Falls Road. It is a rural street, where a bridge had been taken out during Irene.

There were several accidents that White had witnessed this winter. He also spoke of how snow banks on the road were pushed back a certain way, perhaps making turns tighter for vehicles to navigate.

"The last storm was very expensive," said Wilmington Town Manager. "We went through a lot of sand."

Keefe noticed that there have been some budget reductions for sand and salt usage in different towns.

"At the end of the day, unless the roads are a sheet of ice, it's really the fault of the operator," he concluded.

His tips for driving on slippery roads include having the right tires, not driving unnecessarily and using a little more caution.

According to Keefe, patrolling interstate roads when roads are slick tends to be priority for the state police.

"There's such a safety hazard there that we may not respond to secondary roads," he said.

Route 9 in Marlboro is considered especially dangerous during the winters. It is known for accidents and vehicles leaving the road.

"It's always a hot spot for us. It's been a hot spot for the last 30 years," said Keefe, who responded to a call when a car hit the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop on Dec. 13. A vehicle crashed into the shop at an angle, causing extensive damage to the building. The crash knocked down a 15-foot section of the store's exterior wall and destroyed a large amount of merchandise inside the store. No one was hurt but the vehicle was totaled.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Tom Kines told the Reformer that lately, temperatures have been getting above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.

"Those are ripe conditions for potholes and I'm sure some of the roads are starting to take a hit from that," he said.

When temperatures reach a point above freezing, water or snow begins to melt. The water then gets into cracks on roads.

"But at night, when it is below freezing and water freezes and expands, that starts to push the road or pieces of the road up and forms a bump there," said Kines. "Then during the day, when temperatures rise above freezing, that ice that formed overnight starts to melt. As it does so a lot of the time, it erodes away some of the dirt or gravel underneath the road and it causes a soft spot in the road."

As vehicles travel over those sections, the road begins to break and potholes are worsened. In addition to potholes, black ice tends to affect the roads in what Kines calls "falling cycles," in which temperatures are mild during the day and freezing at night.

"It happens every year. Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily always happen in January. Sometimes it waits until later in the winter," he said. "We're kind of having a January thaw right now. I'm sure later on in the winter, we'll have another cycle like this. It's something that you just can't avoid in these northern climates."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.