It's cold outside... but that doesn't stop Richard and the Oxfordshire gritting crews

Sometimes driving in the winter can be a real challenge, especially during rush hour when it seems everyone is trying to get to work or get home.

But if you thought that was tough, spare a thought for the people who have to drive 20 tonne wagons loaded with several more tonnes of salt and sometimes a snowplough, often in the dark and regularly in freezing temperatures and snow - people like Richard Boss who has been a driver for Oxfordshire County Council’s winter gritting service for 28 years.

Ready to respond whatever the time

Richard is one of a 26-strong team who are on standby throughout the winter to turn out at all hours to make sure that the priority roads around Oxfordshire are salted and kept as safe as possible during freezing and sometimes treacherous weather so that people can continue to play an active part in their community.

As Richard, 58 of North Aston, explains: “You are always thinking about what could be around the next corner. The job is all about safety – the safety of people using the roads and your own safety as a driver doing your job.

“I’ve been overtaken before by people in cars who were clearly in a rush and a mile up the road I’ve spotted them in a ditch. There really is no substitute for taking care, slowing down and taking the time to drive safely.”

Spreading salt on the roads is just one part of the job. As a former retained fireman Richard already had experience of helping people in danger and driving big vehicles, but life as a gritter driver has presented a few varied challenges too.

“One time over in Rollright there was a man who had come off his pushbike at the bottom of a hill and the ambulance couldn’t get to him. We ploughed the road, salted it and then guided the ambulance down the hill with the gritter in reverse. The man got off to hospital, but without us he would have been stranded for a long time as he couldn’t move.

“I have also helped people get to a funeral because the road was impassable and more recently a local resident arrived in the depot on a horse because it was the only way she could get up the road. We helped to get her husband off to hospital and used a teleloader, a kind of digger, to clear the road.”

Getting out before the mercury hits zero

The key is for the gritters to be ready to go out and round the routes before the road temperatures hit zero. But weather is not that simple and rain and snow, which can wash away or cover the salt, complicate matters.

Another big challenge of the job is visibility – winter weather makes everything more difficult. Dark nights combined with snow which sometimes overwhelms windscreen wipers, combined with low-hanging branches weighed down with snow means high levels of concentration are required as not only do the drivers need to keep an eye on the road but also on cameras and mirrors to make sure the salt is still coming out of the spinner.

Driving from London to Iceland every time a freeze is predicted

In Oxfordshire the county council grits all A-roads, B-roads and some C-roads. This amounts to 1,200 miles per gritting run which is the equivalent of travelling from London to Iceland. There has been no change to the winter maintenance budget in recent years. The money we spend relates directly to the conditions on Oxfordshire’s roads in any given year. Last year we spent more than £1.8m gritting Oxfordshire’s roads. Last year’s winter was the worst in recent years in terms of conditions and length.

Making the call every day during the winter supporting our thriving local communities

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 thing 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 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 to support our thriving local economy and communities. 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 December like you would in June or July. It’s common sense really - but it’s important.”

Things you might not know about gritting:

  • It’s not grit – it’s salt (we don’t know why it started being called ‘gritting’)
  • The salt is corrosive and the gritters must be steam cleaned and wax-oiled regularly. Even so, parts have to be replaced due to rust.
  • Normally the spinners at the back spread the salt across the full width of the road. But snow on the ground means that the salt particles don’t bounce and so more work is needed to get it where it’s needed.
  • The wheels drive the spinners that spread the salt – if the gritter isn’t moving it’s not spreading grit, so try not to hold them up!
  • Salt needs traffic to help make it work – driving over it mixes it with any ice on the road surface and makes sure it gets spread around properly
  • Salt only works down to about -6°c and care is always needed if you are driving in freezing temperatures even if you can see a road has been salted
  • When it snows we do also plough the roads. BUT the ploughs can’t go right down to make contact with the road surface so that things like cats eyes are not damaged.
  • “Winter” in Oxfordshire starts in November as far as gritting is concerned and runs through to April.