Our Mark launches a-salt against ice and snow

What’s the biggest challenge someone driving a 20 tonne gritting wagon across icy roads in freezing temperatures?

Well, if you ask Mark Boundy, it could well be tree branches, power cables and something known as ‘the Star Wars effect’.

Mark has been driving gritting wagons for Oxfordshire County Council for six years and last winter was a tough one, as he explains: “We had more trouble with fallen trees and branches weighed down by snow than the snow itself.

“You would be driving along and tree limbs that should have been well out of the way were often at cab level because of the snow. Power cables were also at lower than normal levels as well.

“Another thing you can experience is what we call the Star Wars effect. In the dark, with the snow falling your lights show up the flakes against the pitch-black sky and it looks like you are going into hyperdrive.

“All this means that you really have to have your wits about you at all times and it’s testament to the skill and experience of the drivers that they get round their routes in some pretty awful conditions.”

When asked why he does the job, Mark simply says that it’s a job that has to be done. He is also keen to get across the safety message to fellow road users during the worst weather that winter has to throw at us.

“Salt works as a de-icer, but it is only effective down to something like -6 °C and it also needs traffic to keep it moving it across the road. Salt helps, but it doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be ice anywhere on your route. My advice is to drive carefully at all times as there can be patches of ice or snow about.

“Snow ploughing is another thing I’d like to tell people about. Firstly you can’t plough and spread grit at the same time. You need the weight of the salt in the back to counteract the weight of the snow you are trying to push – there’s some incredible forces involved in moving snow and sometimes you can end up with the snow pushing the vehicle sideways as you can get up to three tonnes of snow in the plough.

“That is one of the reasons we really try to get salt down ahead of the snow.

“The other thing people may not realise is that the ploughs don’t go right down to the tarmac – they can’t as that would risk damaging things like cats eyes. So even if a road is ploughed and passable we need to go back and grit it and, of course, drivers need to be very careful.

Another of the more unexpected perils that face drivers is thirst. They find that the salt has a habit of eventually drying out the air in the cab meaning that having some water and perhaps some sweets to hand is a must.

While our gritter drivers are a dedicated crew, it is not their only talent. Mark also works in the depot’s sign making department and also looks after road closures. It’s not often that the two sides of Mark’s career mix, but he does recall one occasion: “I was manning the closure of Abingdon Road during one of the particularly bad floods and got a call on my mobile telling me I needed to get back to the depot to go out in the gritter!”

So what would Mark recommend for anyone heading out in freezing weather? Beyond the obvious ‘take care’ there’s a few other things he’d definitely suggest: “Clear your cars of any snow on the windscreen and roof. I’ve seen the police stopping people who have set off with a clear screen and then the snow from the roof has slipped down after a few minutes. As well as possibly getting a fine you can also effectively be blind for a few seconds and you can hit anything in that time.

“Also think about what’s in your boot. A snow shovel a warm jacket and some boots can make all the difference if you get stuck.”

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. 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.