The cracked and starred car windshields were as predictable as a snowstorm on Thanksgiving.
"The first morning, there were five cars waiting in the parking lot at 8 a.m.," Neste Auto Glass owner Jeff Sexton said. "I feel as badly for those people as anybody."
Sexton's shop has been busier than normal since a 23-mile chip-seal project began earlier this month on U.S. Highway 40 west of Steamboat Springs. His crew was on its seventh windshield replacement by 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Bart Peters has had a similar experience at The Truck Stop. His windshield business doubled during the first week of the project, which was wrapping up this week.
The fine pieces of gravel used in the chip-seal process are meant to extend the life of asphalt highways. But when motorists fail to slow down, the gravel shortens the lives of their windshields, Peters said.
"They're crushed rocks, so they've got sharp edges," Peters said. "They hang up in the tires. The broken windshields come from oncoming traffic when (pieces of gravel) ricochet out of the fender-well."
Sexton said that to understand why such tiny rocks can break windshields, motorists have to consider the combined speed of two approaching cars; even if both are going 40 mph, rocks will impact a windshield at 80 mph. If the driver of one of the passing vehicles is ignoring posted reduced speed limits, the speed at which a piece of gravel strikes glass can quickly exceed 100 mph.
Yet, it's not so much the damage created by flying gravel that cracks windshields beyond repair, Sexton said. Instead, it's Routt County's drastic temperature changes. Often, the greatest damage to windshields can appear days or weeks after the initial gravel incident.
"We get a lot of that, 'Oh, I just came out in the morning and it was broken,'" Sexton said. "It's not the hole that cracks the windshield, it's the hot windshield and the weakening of the glass."
When a sudden Colorado rain shower pelts a hot and already weakened windshield, or the owner pulls through the car wash, it's all over, Sexton said.
Many of his customers do not have comprehensive insurance, and they're eating the costs of windshield replacements. Newer windshields with radio antennae and heating mechanisms embedded in the glass, such as a minivan windshield he was replacing Wednesday, can cost as much as $1,700.
But the damage must be fixed, or the vehicle's owner could face a ticket. Undersheriff Dan Taylor said driving with a windshield that has damage within the driver's field of view is a traffic violation.
Peters is advising customers with windshields that need to be replaced, but are still legal, to wait until the chip-seal project on U.S. 40 settles before they have the work done. Despite the up-tick in business, he isn't celebrating the fall-out from the highway project.