Oxfordshire gritter lorry drivers ready for another winter of making roads safer

Gritter lorry driver Richard Boss. Photo: Oxfordshire County Council
Gritter lorry driver Richard Boss. Photo: Oxfordshire County Council

One of the longest-serving members of the gritting service team based at the Deddington depot shared stories of how they have helped people in danger as they prepare for another winter in Oxfordshire.

When a freeze is predicted, Oxfordshire County Council's gritting lorries travel 1,200 miles per run which is the equivalent of travelling from London to Iceland.

Richard Boss has been a gritter lorry driver for 28 years and will be one of 26 people driving the 20-tonne wagons full of salt all over the county to keep the roads safer during the cold weather.

The 58-year-old, from North Aston, already had experience of helping people in danger and driving big vehicles as a former retained fireman, but life as a gritter driver has presented a few 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," he said.

"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.”

The key is for the gritters to be ready to go out and round the routes before the road temperatures hit zero, but it is never that simple as rain and snow can wash away or cover the salt.

Another big challenge of the job is visibility. Dark nights combined with snow which sometimes overwhelms windscreen wipers, plus 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.

Richard said: “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.”

In Oxfordshire the county council grits all A-roads, B-roads and some C-roads, costing the county council spent more than £1.8m last year.

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.”