Like burst pipes and influenza, potholes are part of winter. But January's record cold and the District's long neglect of its streets combined to bring them out in epidemic numbers this year.

Yesterday, 12 city repair crews were out doing quick patch jobs but couldn't keep up. With cars passing only yards away, workmen packed asphalt mix into holes on the Whitehurst Freeway and East and South Capitol streets, following a busy Monday when 59 tons of patch mix (20 tons is a normal day's supply) were slapped into holes around the city.

By all accounts, the District's problems are the worst in the area, but drivers everywhere have been forced to negotiate cratered thoroughfares with extra care, trying to avoid the blowouts, bent rims and skewed alignments that holes can inflict.

Many have not succeeded. The result has been extra business for the few people who can find gold in them thar holes: auto repairmen and tire salesmen.

"I had one guy come in with two tires on the right hand side gone, the front suspension bent up," said Steve Gavigan, assistant manager of the Market Tire store at 3156 Bladensburg Rd. NE, hard by some of the city's killer potholes.

On the other hand, Bill Cummings, proprietor of of Cummings General Tire Co. in the District, got a taste himself of what the roads had to offer Monday night when his car made an unscheduled exploration of a minicanyon on East West Highway in Maryland. "I thought I lost my car," he said. Yesterday he was still trying to find the time to get his car on the lift and assess the damage.

The potholes have been expensive for the city, too. Last year, the District spent about $1 million fixing them, but this year the figure could be twice that, according to city Transportation Department chief Tom Downs.

A pothole hotline, 282-BEEP, has been opened to take citizen complaints in the District. "We're trying for no longer than 48 hours on any notice of a hole," Downs said. But that was only a target.

Prince George's County also has a hotline, 735-HOLE. The rest of the Maryland suburbs and Virginia have their share of potholes, too. Indeed, they are plaguing motorists just about everywhere.

Edward Moore of the nonprofit research group The Road Information Program predicts that nationwide, "1982 is going to be a record year for potholes."

The reasons are bad weather and poor maintenance. Fifty-three percent of the nation's paved roads were rated as substandard last June, he said, compared to 42 percent a year earlier.

There is no official count of potholes in the Washington area (though among the statistics TRIP collects is the average size of the American pothole, 16 inches across and 5 inches deep).

The District's problems apparently are due to a city decision in the early 1970s to play down road maintenance in favor of subway construction and other capital projects.

"The only permanent solution to potholes is resurfacing the streets," said Downs, who is trying to put new stress on roads. This fiscal year, Downs said, D.C. hopes to resurface about 35 miles of roads, with help from federal grants. Bladensburg Road from South Dakota to Eastern Avenue is among those scheduled to be done this summer.

Only about five to six miles were being resurfaced annually in the late 1970s, Downs said.

Potholes form when water seeps into worn pavement, freezes, expands, and loosens it up further. Then the wheels of passing cars tear out chunks of pavement. And so a hole is born and grows with each vehicle that jars across it.

Each freeze and thaw restarts the process. This cycle figures closely in the number of holes: Washington winter temperatures shift frequently in and out of freezing and make local streets more vulnerable than those in cities farther north, where things freeze and stay frozen.

D.C.'s Transportation Department has about 50 people working on the street in patching crews. In wet weather, they fill the hole with a semiliquid mix that combines asphalt and crushed sand and rock. It goes on cold. If the crew has a roller, they tamp it down. If not, hand tools or the wheels of a truck make do.

With some rain forecast for today, the crews will probably be using the cold-mix process.

In the rush to fix dozens of holes on a single block, work can be shoddy, city officials acknowledge. And wet weather and heavy traffic can quickly pull the patch out again. Other "temporary" patches, however, stay in place for years.

In the dryer, warmer weather, the road crews normally use so-called "hot mixes" to fill the holes. These generally last longer, but are still not a subsitute for resurfacing the road.