Busy Winter for Dave and his fellow gritter drivers continues in to March

When February turns to March Dave Primrose and his fellow Oxfordshire County Council gritter drivers usually know that their trips out to treat the county’s roads will be fewer and further between.

This year though there’s cold weather forecast as Winter turns to early Spring and Dave and his colleagues are ready for action.

“We will all be avid weather watchers for longer than normal this year. We’ve certainly been out more than we have been for six or seven Winters so far,” says Banbury born and raised Dave, who has been a gritter driver since 2012, based at the council’s Deddington depot.

The 50 year old had previously worked in the construction industry. The main portion of his job with the council is as one of the supervisors who organises the highway maintenance crews who fix potholes and mend wider sections of road.

But when Winter comes around they take on an extra duty – one that provides Oxfordshire’s main roads with an extra level of protection from the Winter cold and changes the daily routine of the staff involved and often their families too.

Dave said: “Quite often when the call is made to send the gritters out, the run will be during the evening at around the 7pm or 8pm mark. That’s when the forecast is straightforward and its going to be a normal cold winter’s night.

“A run for one gritter and its driver is about three hours so on those occasions we are usually back home and tucked up in bed by midnight or just after.

“Sometimes though the gritting run has to be at 2am because the forecast is more complex and involves snow or rain. The timing has to be just right. On those occasions I’d try to get some sleep before getting up to go out on the gritting run. That’s obviously more tough and you don’t really sleep properly. There’s a fair amount of clock watching involved!

“This year it’s been busy throughout. The gritter drivers had a particularly busy time in early December when quite a lot of snow fell and then again between Christmas and New Year when we did four treatments in the space of 24 hours.

“There are always occasions when the forecast from the Met Office has changed at short notice and so the call has had to be changed. When that means the gritters go out at short notice it can certainly have an impact on your family or social life, but it’s all part of the job. To be fair that’s only happened to me once this Winter so far.

“My children are grown up now but in my earlier days on the gritters they were still at school and there were occasions they were reminded that their Dad was trying to rest and they should be quiet.

“Driving on a freezing cold night in January with the snowplough on at 3am is certainly an experience! On the runs that happen at more sociable hours you’ll often get other drivers who get impatient and try to overtake you or race out in front of you.

“During the runs that happen in the small hours you can see see owls, deer, foxes and all kinds of other animals that you wouldn’t encounter during the day.

“There was one memorable evening in a previous year when I was driving down in to Adderbury in the gritter and suddenly there was stag deer right in front of me in the headlights. I slammed on the breaks missed him by a whisker.

“The other thing you can quite often get is people waving at you and asking for a toot on the horn. Friday and Saturday nights can be interesting because you can observe people who have very clearly been out for a drink!

“It’s an important job and we know we play a role in helping keep people safe – although of course they play a huge role themselves by driving to the conditions.”

Paul Wilson manages the council’s winter operation and explained how the decision is made on whether the gritters should swing in to action or not. He said: “We make that decision on a daily basis based on the detailed weather forecast for Oxfordshire.

“The crucial determinant that councils check to judge whether the gritters should go out or not is whether the road surface temperature will be at 0.5 degrees or below. That’s the temperature at which frost will form and surfaces will become slippery. Many other factors are also taken into consideration by the decision officers.

“Right the way through from November to the Spring we take this daily decision. Often it is a straightforward judgement but occasionally there are complications. For instance, the forecast might be telling us that the night will start very cold and frost will form but it’ll later warm up and that there’ll be rain coming in.

“On other occasions there might be snow in the forecast and we’ll want to time the gritting run just right and perhaps fit the snowploughs to the front of the gritters. On such occasions there’s every chance we’d send the gritters out more than once.

“We know it’s a difficult job for a driver of one of the gritters. Driving down a country road in freezing conditions at 2am in dark depths of winter is no picnic.

“The aim is to have the main roads in as safe a condition as possible. It should however be pointed out that gritting is not a magic elixir that prevents the driving hazards that winter brings. It lessens them – it does not eliminate them. Our advice is always that people should drive to the conditions. Don’t drive in February like you would in June or July. It’s common sense really - but it’s important.”