Frost Heaves Create Hazards on Maine Roads

Spring brings a welcome respite for many in Maine who braved a bitter winter and are now looking forward to warmer days ahead. But for drivers, spring also brings what can be an unexpected hazard:  frost heaves.

These are an uplift of water-soaked soil or other surface deposits that rise up due to expansion and freezing. In some cases, the rise can be so dramatic that it breaks through the pavement of the road, creating a major risk for drivers. Maine residents have given the road features many monikers:  asphalt crevasses, nature’s speed bumps, chuck holes, and paved divots. Although they regularly appear every spring season, they can still catch operators by surprise.

Officials with the Maine Department of Transportation reported there are three things needed to create a frost heave:

  • Freezing temperatures
  • Moisture
  • Frost-susceptible soil (such as clay)

Maine has all three throughout the winter, so these issues are seen every year. Usually, it’s a minor annoyance. However, it can in some cases be a major risk. The fact that it occurs with regularity means the DOT has a duty to anticipate them and regularly inspect roads for these dangers. They should also respond promptly to motorist complaints about certain problem areas. A failure to do so might be a basis for a liability lawsuit if the frost heave results in a collision or a driver losing control.

Frost heaves form when water seeps into the soil under the road. That water freezes and expands as winter continues and more water soaks in. As it freezes and expands, the soil rises, pushing up the road. Then, when the soil thaws in the spring, some areas thaw faster than others, which results in a retraction of soil. Part of the road drops. This results in frost heaves.

Experts in environmental and civil engineering at the University of Maine opine the best way to circumvent frost heaves is to avoid building roads on soil that traps water that freezes in the winter.

In places where that isn’t possible, city transportation workers have to remove soil that is vulnerable to frost by removing water or preventing the road from freezing. This requires ongoing drainage efforts. It’s the only reason we typically don’t see frost heaves on I-95 and the Maine Turnpike. However, it’s quite expensive. Rebuilding just one mile of the interstate can cost up to $10 million.

Some in Portland and Bangor have come to view them simply as “spring time speed bumps,” a regular fact of life. However, that does not mean transportation officials don’t have a duty to address it, particularly when it poses a risk of a car accident. This is particularly true when vehicles are traveling at high speeds. From a liability standpoint, if excessive speed over a frost heave causes a driver to lose control, the driver may be comparatively negligent, but speeding is also something traffic engineers can foresee and for which they should plan.

Still, it’s wise to slow down over roads where frost heaves are known to form in the spring.

At the very least, officials may have a duty to warn motorists about the potential danger. This is why you may have noticed thousands of temporary warning signs for bumps and frost heaves as you travel around Maine this spring.

If you are a victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Spring in Maine means frost heaves in the roads, April 15, 2017, By Julia Bayly, Bangor Daily News

More Blog Entries:

Heroin-Induced Car Accident in Maine Prompts Rehab Order, March 29, 2017, Auto Accident Lawyer Blog

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