THE HARDER THE WINTER in this part of the world, the flakier the roads - and this year they're really going to pot. If you've been driving, you know how bad conditions have become; why, those aren't potholes - they're veritable vatholes, and they're an extreme safety hazard. We've checked with the man in charge of repairing them in the city - Stanley S. Ather, maintenance engineer for the Department of Transportation - who says conditions "are about as bad as I've seen in the last 20 years."

But to our surprise, Mr. Ather didn't resort to the bureaucrat's familiar "what can I do" shrug, nor did he whine about budget limitations. Give him another week or two of decent weather, he said, and his crews could bring things under control. So far, the city teams have used more than twice as much hot asphalt as they had used at this time last year: from 700 tons in January 1977 to 1,500 tons last month. Moreover, it's been done with the same amount of men and equipment as last year, "just working twice as hard." There have been 17 to 21 trucks out each day, with crews of three or four each, and hang the cost - some sidewalks or other summer projects just won't get done right away.

Meanwhile, driving is still perilous, especially at night.In some neighborhoods, the terrain resembles the dark side of the moon, where even a 1978-model Lunar Rover might keel over. Then there are places where the road seems fine, and you have only to drop your guard and accelerate and you immediately hit the rim of a deep pit at high speed. That, according to area traffic and roads officials, is whne some of the most serious accidents occur - a car's steering goes out of control, or its alignment is thrown off. Nobody knows how many autos have been damaged that way so far this year, but officials tell us that the tire business has been picking up rather well - not only because of flats incurred during accidents, but also because wise motorists are replacing worn tires as a matter of precaution.

Mr. Ather notes that bridges are some of the worst areas in town, especially those in need of deck replacements. The more heavily traveled roads also are particularly hazardous. Citizens who wish to notify the city of extreme trouble spots are invited to call Mr. Ather's office at 629-5357. By way of driving advice, officials at the AAA (whom you may happen to have called upon in recent days) note that one of the most dangerous reactions is to suddenly hit the brake; that can ruin the steering, break an axle and compound passenger injury. Also, there have been some frightening instances in which drivers have swerved to avoid craters and narrowly missed on-coming traffic or pedestrians. So about the best that officials can advise is to keep a close eye on the road and drive slowly.

We may never find out exactly where all those divots really go, but it is reassuring to know that help is on the way. To be sure, there's still the month of March, when the freeze-and-thaw cycles usually peak. For now, though, our thanks go to local repair crews for a dedicated performance.