Winter is here and Dave and his fellow gritter drivers are ready to swing in to action when required

When Autumn turns to Winter Dave Primrose and his fellow Oxfordshire County Council gritter drivers know that there’ll soon be a night when they are out on the roads in the dark and cold at midnight or beyond.

“We all become avid weather watchers” 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!

“There have been 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.

“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 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 December like you would in June or July. It’s common sense really - but it’s important.”

Oxfordshire County Council’s gritters - Key facts

  • The annual budget for the gritting operation and associated work is just over £1m which is the same as previous winters.
  • The county council will as usual be employing around 25 gritters to grit all A-roads and B-roads and some C-roads when required. Highways England are responsible for treating the A34, M40 and A43.
  • There’s approximately 8500 tonnes of salt in stock which is the same as previous winters and can be stocked up as required as the Winter progresses. A gritting run covering all of the county’s main roads covers 1,200 miles which is the equivalent of London to Iceland.
  • Gritters are based at the county’s highways depots in Deddington, Drayton and Woodcote
  • The gritters each have names – such as Ice Warrior, Gritterminator and Salty