Every year about this time, pothole season envelops the Washington area, leaving hundreds of cars with bent wheels, flat tires and missing hubcaps and shock absorbers and motorists with overheated tempers.

This winter, alas, is no different. Gaping cavities in local streets have been made particularly bad this year because of the great amount of rain, cold weather, snow and sleet the Washington area has experienced in the last two weeks. The result is that many heavily traveled streets have buckled and cracked.

Sometimes the snow temporarily fills the holes, one Arlington County officials noted, but more often it only camouflages them until the motorist is jolted by the small craters.

Repairs are usually made by spring, but until then motorists zig-zag and bounce to their destinations on city and suburban streets that become obsacle courses.

A pothole is formed when water seeps under a road's surface. The water freezes, expands and causes the pavement to heave upward and pop out when vehicles run over it. Salt and other chemicals used on streets to melt snow also cause the paving material to weaken and deteriorate.

Driving over one pothole on Connecticut Avenue "felt like it was going to take the wheel with it," said Richard E. Hay, a pothole material researcher for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "In fact, the car in front of me hit it and the hubcap was left there."

Hay said the search for the perfect pothole-filling material is continuing. Products that have been found to be relatively effective are too expensive, Hay said.

"All efforts to find such a thing have met with failure," Hay said.

The ideal solution, Hay said, is to dig up all the pot-holed streets and rebuild them, taking into account the amount of traffic on them and correcting poor drainage. But that, too, would be overly expensive.

In the District, "the bridges seem to be the worst," according to Charles F. Williams, engineer of street construction for the D.C. Department of Transportation. Williams said his 60 pothole repairmen are behind in their work, but expect to be caught up in a few weeks.

The repair crews drive trucks with about four tons of asphalt and fill and pat in the hot steaming mixture as they find the potholes. They also have a list of areas where callers have complained of the holes, Williams said.

Some of the city's worst spots are on the Chain Bridge, Key Bridge, 14th Street Bridge, parts of Alabama Avenue SE, Canal Road NW, part of the Anacostia Freeway and on Kenilworth Avenue near Dean Avenue, Williams said.

The bridges are always bad because they are bombarded with moisture from street surface as well as from underneath, Williams said.