Pandemic won't stop Oxfordshire's roads from being gritted

Meet the driver with 38 winters of experience under his belt

Working from home isn’t an option for one group of key workers who are about to be called into action to keep Oxfordshire moving this winter.

While many of us have been adapting to COVID-19 by changing our working habits and swapping the office for our spare rooms, the crews who drive the county’s gritting lorries have no choice but to go back to their depots – socially distanced, of course.

Between the end of October and the beginning of April, Oxfordshire County Council’s increased team of 65 drivers – based at Deddington, Drayton and Woodcote – will be on standby as highways managers monitor the weather forecast multiple times a day to see if road surface temperatures are set to drop.

When this happens – as it did on Tuesday, November 3 – it’s all systems go.

One man who has seen everything the weather has had to throw at Oxfordshire in the last four decades, ranging from mild frosts to 2018’s infamous Beast from the East, is Richard Boss.

Richard, a 60 year old married dad from North Aston, has been driving snow ploughs and gritter lorries for Oxfordshire County Council for 38 years. But this year, as well as spreading the grit, he is making sure he does all he can to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Richard said: “While we’re loading, everyone has to wear a face mask. All drivers have got sanitisers in the lorries to wipe the steering wheel and wipe everything down before they start salting.

“Then, when we’ve finished, we have to wipe everything down again to make sure it’s all spotless for the next driver to come in.”

Contingency plans are in place to make sure the gritters can hit the road, even if a number of drivers are forced to self-isolate at some point during the winter.

“We’ve got drivers being trained up pretty quickly to cover in case of a significant COVID outbreak,” said Richard, who usually grits the Bicester route in his lorry, which was given the name ‘Crazy Daisy’ by local schoolchildren.

In fact, 15 extra drivers have been given training to take over if required – and there will be help for the new recruits in the cab too, if they are called upon.

“We’ve just had new satnavs fitted to the vehicles,” said Richard. “Each vehicle is then set to a specific route so you could stick any driver in it if you need to, push the satnav on and it would tell them where to salt and where not to salt – the route’s already on there. That’s a big help.

When the temperatures drop, Richard who is a supervisor looking after issues such as potholes and hedge-cutting when not called on to grit the roads knows the routine well at his Deddington depot.

“We have 13 people on a shift so all 13 have to go home at lunchtime to get their rest period as they will be driving through the night,” he said. “Weekends are not too bad. We’re told what time we’re on the road from. If we’re on the road at 7pm, we get to the depot for 6pm to check the vehicle over, fill the salt up, and make sure everything’s working as it should be.

“Most runs take about three and a half hours. Generally, one run’s good enough for the milder winter weather but if it’s bad weather we can come in and load up again and then go out. If it needs further gritting, we call the next team in to take over.”

Every time they are called out, Oxfordshire’s gritter drivers cover more than 1,000 miles, salting all A-roads, B-roads and some C-roads. The M40, A43 and A34 are covered by Highways England.

With such distances to cover during his 38 years at the wheel, it’s not surprising to learn that Richard has endured the odd scary moment.

“I’ve had some near scrapes over the years with the lorry skidding on ice but I managed to keep it in a straight line and keep it on the road,” he said. “It can be frightening out there at night, especially on your own.

“The Beast from the East was a fine, dusty snow,” he recalls. “It was blowing across the fields and blocking the roads left, right and centre.

“By the time we’d ploughed it off, it was back again. Most gritter drivers were pretty tired that weekend!”

The technology at the drivers’ disposal has improved almost beyond recognition since Richard started gritting the roads in 1982.

“Everything’s electric now,” said Richard. “You just sit in the cab, there’s no need to get out, it tells you everything that’s happening.

“In the old days, the lorries ran on petrol and paraffin and we had a ‘donkey engine’ [a small auxiliary engine] at the back of the lorry. You had to go out, start the engine, put it in gear and then do the salting. Then when you got to the end of the load you had to jump out, turn it off, and drive to the next location.

“Now we’ve got cameras on the back of the gritters so you can actually see what salt’s left and what’s happening - it’s really up to date.”

But one thing that doesn’t change is the message to other motorists to drive responsibly when the gritters are out doing their job.

“Drivers should just be aware that we are out there to help them out,” said Richard. “As the vehicles are restricted we can only do 30mph when salting so we often get traffic coming up behind us quite quickly.

“If you do get held up behind us gritters, just remember we’re there to protect you and keep you safer on the road, instead of blowing your horn and trying to get past!”

The numbers game

  • 15: Number of extra drivers trained up for 2020 - 21
  • 25: Gritter lorries on the road at any one time
  • 220: Tonnes of salt used per treatment (approximately).

Paul Wilson, the man in charge of coordinating the county council’s winter weather response, said: “For 22 weeks of the year, the winter service becomes one of the key frontline services that the county council provides, keeping almost half of the roads across Oxfordshire free as possible from winter hazards.

“However, it should be remembered that even when we do treat, the salt we spread is not like magic dust, and ice and hoar frost can still form even on treated roads. One way to look at it is, if you have to clear your windscreen of ice or frost in the morning there is a possibility that there will be similar on the road surface, so motorists should drive to the prevailing conditions and stay safe.

“We receive a bespoke weather forecast for the county several times a day and, although similar to the forecast you see on the news, it is more specific to road temperature rather than air temperature. This forecast is checked regularly and it helps us to make the decision whether to treat the roads or not.

“The gritter drivers, as mentioned earlier, all have day jobs as well, whether that be filling potholes, patching roads, clearing drains, etc, so for them to drive large gritting vehicles as well can make it a tiring day, especially in severe winter conditions when they could be clearing snow for 12 hours at a time.”

For more information about our winter service please check out our webpages on Oxfordshire County Council’s website