CRACKING UP – Alaska might be the U.S. capital of chipped and broken windshields

A year or two ago, Hugo Hoerdeman, owner of a small auto-glass repair shop in Anchorage, got a great idea: He would focus his advertising specifically on the people who need his services most.

After drawing up a little handbill that touted the virtues of Advantage Auto Glass , his family-run business off Potter Drive, Hoerdeman printed off a stack of fliers and headed downtown with his son.

The Hoerdemans began looking for cars with cracked or chipped glass. They placed a flier under the wiper of each windshield that needed their help.

Of which there were plenty.

It seemed every windshield on the street had been cracked or chipped by a flying rock, Hoerdeman says. Very soon he and his son ran out of handbills.

“I think we left one on about every stinking car we walked by,” he says, enjoying the memory. “And it was like ‘Ahh, forget it. … We’re all out of them now.’ ”

If ever Alaska passes a law, as some states have, requiring car owners to repair their windshields before they can get vehicle licenses renewed, Hoerdeman would be a rich man.

“I don’t think they’ll ever pass that up here,” he says. “They might as well open up a hundred new glass shops (if they did), because that’s all people would be doing — standing in line to get a new windshield.”

Why?

Because Alaska might well be the national capital of cracked and chipped auto glass companies . You can find broken windshields here just about anywhere you look, some barely dinged — with harmless-looking little scallops waiting to grow — and some cracked far beyond repair.

According to a spokesman for State Farm Insurance, the nation’s No. 1 auto insurer paid claims on more than 10,000 broken windshields in Alaska in 2003 (roughly one for every 64 Alaskans). During the first quarter of this year, it processed in excess of 2,000 more.

That’s half again as many broken-windshield claims per capita as State Farm paid through March in the state of Washington and almost 10 times as many as the company paid per capita that quarter in California.

Combined numbers aren’t available for all the insurance companies serving Alaska. But if the claims paid by State Farm — which represents one of every four insured motor-ists here — are representative, then Alaskans last year may have suffered more than 40,000 broken windshields all told.

And those are only the ones that got fixed by insurance companies.

While Alaskans are required by law to carry liability insurance on their motor vehicles, many of them forgo the added expense of comprehensive insurance that would pay for windshield repairs. Others have such high deductible payments on their policies that they end up having to cover the entire cost of a new windshield out of pocket — or simply get used to driving a less-than-perfect car.

It’s an aspect of living in Alaska that becomes increasingly apparent each spring, when the carnage annually begins.

“The summer is always our biggest season, but it starts with breakup,” says Cullen Stapley, manager of the Speedy Glass store at Fireweed Road and Arctic Boulevard. “Obviously because all of the rocks are still on the roads (from winter road-sanding operations).

“Then it moves into summer, with a lot more traveling — plus you have all the gravel trucks running around with all the construction going on.”

GRAVEL-GRABBING TIRES

But don’t blame every rock that ricochets off your windshield on gravel haulers, say several local windshield repairmen. In Alaska, your neighbor is just as likely a culprit as someone steering a big rig.

Especially if that neighbor lives on a gravel road (as many residents of the Anchorage Hillside do) and drives a car or truck equipped with the increasingly popular “all-weather” tires with pronounced treads that have proven particularly adept at sponging up gravel on side streets and spitting it out at higher speeds.

“I’ll tell you where most of it is coming from,” Hoerdeman says. “It’s coming from aggressive treads (on family vehicles). I’ve got those all-terrain tires from BF Goodrich on my own truck. I can go out there and I can count probably 20 stones that are stuck in the tread of the tire. And as I drive, I can constantly hear them hitting the inside of my car, and I know they’re flying out everywhere.”

John Boyt, owner-founder of Replacement Glass Co., which has stood at the corner of Fireweed and Arctic for 34 years, agrees. He decided long ago that gravel trucks account for “only a very small portion” of the city’s broken windshields.

“Really what we have here is a lot of gravel and rocks on our streets that get lodged in the tires,” Boyt says. “Then doing 50 to 60 mph, we have little missiles coming out of all those tires. That’s where we normally get broken windows.”

Some say that Alaskans who like to tailgate at high speeds have only themselves to blame for a dinged windshield. But law-abiding drivers who follow cars at a safe distance are just as vulnerable — when a vehicle behind them accelerates to pass, kicking up road dirt and gravel, then cuts back into traffic too soon, spraying the car behind it.

It’s not a new problem, but it might be getting worse, if the local growth in auto-glass repair shops is any indication.

While the 1994 Anchorage telephone book listed 12 auto glass companies stores in town, the current telephone book lists 24, including Speedy Glass, with four outlets ranging from Eagle River to South Anchorage.

Part of that commercial growth might be traced to a modest increase in Anchorage’s population over the past decade, which has squeezed cars on local highways closer together, making them more susceptible to flying rocks.

According to the state Department of Transportation’s annual traffic report, the number of vehicles traveling the Seward Highway at a point south of 76th Avenue has grown 26 percent in the past decade (from 54,000 vehicles a day during the peak summer month of 1993 to 68,000 a day during the peak summer month of 2001).

Traffic on the Glenn Highway, measured at the Anchorage scale house near Hiland Drive, has grown 30 percent. Traffic on the Parks Highway, measured at Nye Ford in Wasilla, has grown 44 percent.

Scattered within that traffic, of course, are more than a few gravel trucks, which can sometimes be observed dribbling stones in their wake.

Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson watched a hauler do exactly that recently while driving toward Anchorage on the Glenn. As the highway began to climb out of Eagle River gorge, the load in the truck shifted and sprayed out the back.

“Stuff was just pouring out,” Wilkinson says. “I was trying to pull over to the right to get out of the way. … It was just unbelievable.”

Unlike California, where the law requires a gravel truck driver to tarp a load when it nears the brim, gravel haul-ers in Alaska need only “confine” loads and may do so any way they choose.

Failing to properly contain sand, gravel or rocks while driving on public roadways in Alaska can result in a $300 state citation or a $125 municipal citation. (See sidebar on gravel truck and cracked window enforcement.)

Some of the larger haulers in Alaska have voluntarily begun to tarp their loads, according to Mike Bell, director of the Alaska Trucking Association. But tarps can rip, Bell says; they aren’t a cure-all.

Bell travels the state talking to people in the trucking trade on how to properly contain their cargo, and he answers the phone — “I get about 12 (complaint) calls a week” — when someone wants to gripe about a gravel truck.

Commercial trucks are a big, obvious target for criticism, he says, but they’re really few and far between on local roadways. He thinks the problem with cracked windshields here is much more pervasive than that.

“It sounds bad, but it’s almost the cost of living in Alaska,” Bell says. “I’ve got a chip on my own windshield, and I got it from a car that was driving right in front of me. They kicked up a piece of rock — it was the middle of winter — and there are zero gravel haulers on the road that time of year.”

FIX IT SOON

When the same thing happens to you — when a tiny stone flies up and chips your windshield — you’ve got two options, local glass repairmen say.

You can repair it right away, usually at a cost of only $30 to $50 — an expense your insurance company might be willing to pay in full if you’ve got comprehensive coverage — or you can allow it to become a crack that might quickly grow beyond repair and force you to replace the entire windshield at a personal cost of hundreds of dollars.

Cracks grow most quickly in the winter, when the thermal tug-of-war between a heated cab and the cold outdoors stresses the windshield in a way that makes small cracks turn into big cracks, sometimes in just minutes.

“There are some dings I’ve seen on windshields — they’ve never moved. They’ve been there for years,” says Stapley at Speedy Glass. “And there are some that, as soon as it gets cold, just cracks right away.”

Longtime Alaskans know this and try to repair their windows before fall. But the location of the ding matters too, says Hoerdeman of Advantage Auto Glass . Chips in the center of a windshield might sit there all summer without spreading, while those near the edge crack much more readily.

His shop can repair most dings — the job usually takes less than an hour — as well as cracks smaller than a dollar bill. The process involves first using a suction device to vacuum out any air or water that’s in the divot or crack, then injecting it with a clear epoxy resin under high pressure, then curing the repair with ultraviolet light.

“It bonds to the glass altogether, and it actually gets harder than the glass itself,” Hoerdeman says. “And so if you do a good job of putting it in there, the likelihood of it cracking (again) is minimal.”

A lot depends on whether the chip has been allowed to degrade or not, Hoerdeman adds. He advises anyone with a new ding to place a piece of cellophane tape over it to keep out dirt and water, then to bring it in for repair as soon as possible.

“I’ve had people come in within a half hour, and those turn out just beautiful,” he says.

Many Alaskans are unaware that most insurance companies are willing to pick up the entire cost of a chip repair by waiving the up-front deductible payment on comprehensive coverage — rather than having to pay more if the windshield gets worse.

Windshield replacements, by comparison, can cost $250 to $1,000, which might come primarily out of a policyholder’s own pocket, depending on the amount of the deductible. And no, insurance companies will not waive the deductible on a replacement.

According to an auto glass companies industry Web site, an estimated 11 million windshields will be repaired or replaced nationwide this year, making auto glass companies the No. 1 comprehensive insurance claim in the nation.

“The insurance companies are really good about it,” Stapley says. “They’ll fix it at no cost to you. They’d rather pay for a chip now than a whole windshield later.”

Though Alaska may eventually test just how far such corporate generosity extends. The windshield cracks here just keep on coming.

“I had a guy drive away after a repair job, and an hour later he came back with a crack in his windshield,” Hoerdeman recalls. “An hour later! … But that’s why you carry insurance.”

Reporter George Bryson can be reached at gbryson@adn.com.

A Clear View of the Problem

If broken windshields are as rampant in Alaska as some say they are, you’d think the evidence would be as close as your own front door. Unfortunately, it is.

An e-mail query of Daily News editorial department employees in May, asking who among them has a cracked or chipped windshield, elicited about 30 affirmative replies.

A sampling from the survey:

“Funny you should ask, because while driving to work on Sunday, a pebble flew up and left its mark in the glass.”

“I have a few dings out of my windshield.”

“Cracked for the past three years.”

“I’ve had a cracked windshield for months. I’m waiting until gravel season is over before I replace it.”

“I replaced mine about a year ago. It had several chips (but I can’t blame the roads entirely — my son was playing badminton with a piece of asphalt and it hit the windshield, which spider-webbed).”

“I’ve got one big long crack and two nice chips.”

“My family has three cars; two have cracks currently, one had the windshield replaced last fall.”

“I JUST got a crack in my windshield yesterday. Have several

older chips that have been patched.”

“I’ve had two ding chips fixed in the past two months.”

“I’m about to replace mine. Chips are from driving through Canada. First crack started from hot heater air hitting the cold window.”

“I’ve had a cracked windshield for several years.”

“I had to replace my windshield last summer. A couple months later, I took a rock driving down Tudor Road and now have a crack along the bottom of my new windshield.”

“I cracked mine driving to Alyeska for skiing. Started as a chip, but the next day when it was really cold out, the chip spread across the whole window.”

“I have three cracks and two dings. They’re all on the passenger side, so they don’t affect my vision. One that runs along the bottom of the windshield reminds me of Sleeping Lady.

“Depends on what you mean by chipped. I have a bunch of divots (and one fairly major crack that I had repaired for $40). … That fits my definition of cracked, but by Alaska standards it might be in mint condition.”

– George Bryson

Police Watch for Gravel Spills

Is anyone trying to ensure that gravel truck drivers don’t add to Alaska’s broken-windshield epidemic?

You bet, says Sgt. Joe Maston, a traffic officer with the Anchorage Police Department.

With the summer construction season nearing its peak, the city’s traffic unit has been asked to keep a special eye out for spillage by gravel haulers departing quarries in Birchwood, South Anchorage and Indian.

One officer in particular has been working the trucks on the Glenn Highway “really hot and heavy,” Maston says. “The trucking industry is not real happy with him right now.

“If stuff starts falling off of a truck, we’ve been writing the tickets. In other cases, we’ve actually had officers follow them, and if nothing falls off, then they’re OK.”

This year to date, Maston says, the department has written 16 citations for failure to contain or confine a load of sand, gravel or rock.

Commercial vehicle enforcement officers with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities monitor gravel haulers as well, mostly when they come to a stop at one of three mandatory weigh stations on the outskirts of Anchorage.

It’s seldom they find gravel spilling directly out of a truck’s cargo bin, says Aves Thompson, director of the Anchorage office of the state Division of Measurement Standards and Commercial Vehicle Enforcement under DOT.

But sometimes in the loading process, gravel gets sprayed onto a truck’s fenders or trailer hitch, which can serve as launch-pads for gravel flying into windshields.

“We’ve taken a zero-tolerance position on that,” Thompson says. “That’s dangerous. We have far too many cracked windshields. And if that stuff’s on there, we write them a ticket and make them clean it off.”

Still, it’s rare for a trucker to receive a DOT citation for “failure to contain or confine loads,” which now carries a $300 fine.

According to department records provided by Thompson, the commercial vehicle enforcement office in Anchorage wrote only three citations in 2003 for sand, gravel or rock containment violations and only four in 2001 (records for 2002 aren’t available, Thompson says.)

More frequently, the Anchor-age weigh station officers cite commercial vehicle drivers for hauling loads in excess of weight restrictions (252 citations in 2003) or shifting loads (336 citations in 2003), though the records don’t specify the type of vehicle involved.

The vast majority of truckers are found to be operating within the law, Thompson says. The Anchorage stations weighed commercial vehicles 179,273 times in 2003.

But Mike Bell, director of the Alaska Trucking Association, suggests that DOT’s new guidelines for paying gravel haulers who work on state road projects might encourage drivers to push the limits of the law.

Under the Murkowski admin-istration, he says, the state has shifted from an hourly pay scale or a day rate for gravel haulers to the new “per trip” basis of payment calculated on the amount of weight hauled.

“The real negative thing about ‘per trip’ is it promotes driving quickly, getting heavy loads and the possibility of overloading your truck,” Bell says. “It’s not necessarily the driver’s fault. It’s more a systemic fault.”

Whether the rocks that crack windshields in Alaska come from gravel haulers or some other source, the victims have responsibilities of their own. It’s against the law to drive a vehicle with a cracked windshield if the damage obstructs the view of the driver.

“If it’s bad enough, we write it,” says Anchorage Police officer Maston. “It’s mainly to have them get it fixed.”

Since January, Maston says, Anchorage police have written 44 citations for cracked windshields obscuring the vision of drivers.

– George Bryson
Caption: Photo 4: 18 cracking a_071804.jpg Graphic 1: hoerdeman_071804.eps Graphic 2: 18 life teaser hands_071804.eps Graphic 3: 18 Cracking hed_071804.eps
JIM LAVRAKAS/Anchorage Daily News Hugo Hoerdeman is the owner of Advantage Auto Glass , one of several dozen businesses dedicated to auto-glass repair in Anchorage. He blames all-terrain tires on cars and pickups for most windshield damage.

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