Cool as ice keeping us safe

WE have come to rely on gritters, when the snow and ice hold Ipswich roads in their grip. But how do the gurus of the gritter world decide when to roll out the fleet? Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out how that decision is made - and what to do if your road is icy.

WE have come to rely on gritters, when the snow and ice hold Ipswich roads in their grip.

But how do the gurus of the gritter world decide when to roll out the fleet?

Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out how that decision is made - and what to do if your road is icy.

WHEN you turn over in your warm bed on a wintry night, spare a thought for the gritter teams - out there in freezing conditions, spreading salt on the roads to make them safe for when you leave home. The work is rarely noticed: only when things go wrong does it become a public issue.

Back in October, when we were still enjoying the last few balmy days of autumn, Met Office experts uttered a cautionary word.

There is a 65per cent probability of Britain having a worse winter than the last few years, they warned - with January likely to be a particularly harsh month.

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High up in their 11th floor office at Ipswich Borough Council's Civic Centre, highways chiefs glanced out of the panoramic window towards the Ipswich streets, which their fleet of gritting vehicles patrol - and geared up for the season.

“The worst period of 2005 didn't hit until the end of March/early April,” said Bob Clench, “and if you can say what this winter will bring, then I want to borrow your crystal ball!”

He explained there is no pre-determined way to run the town's gritters, whose aim is not just to give our roads more grip, but to lay down a surface which prevents frost and ice forming in the first place.

But weather forecasts are traditionally unreliable - remember the lack of warnings from forecasters including Michael Fish, preceding the 1987 hurricane which battered Eastern England and Suffolk?

So the trio of managers rely on a series of forecasts from different sources.

Bob, senior engineer at Ipswich Borough Council, said: “We endeavour to ensure that main roads are kept free of frost and ice before it forms.”

They do this in Ipswich with a fleet of six Mercedes gritters.

Highways and construction manager Mike Tee said: “I can't say we never get caught out, but we do what we can. It's not physically possible to grit everywhere.”

Gritters stick to six primary routes, which include 125 miles of road across the north, south, east and west areas, the bypass and town centre. They cover 50 per cent of Ipswich's roads, using

15 tonnes of salt in total - and more if snow arrives.

This week night time temperatures have plummeted and gritters have been out most nights. Mr Tee said the team goes out about 85 times per season.

He added: “The staff involved is split into two disciplines, namely the client side which includes decision makers and inspection and contractual (operational).

“The client side has three decision makers, and four inspectors that work on a rota system with one of each being on duty throughout the winter gritting season.”

If forecasters say conditions could be at freezing point after 8am, five secondary routes will also be gritted overnight.

Mr Tee said the contractor has - nearly twenty gritter drivers (a combination of in house personnel (13

three supervisors and three shovel drivers.

“These are divided into three shift patterns, '6pm - midnight', 'midnight to 9am' and 'at rest'.”

Gritters don't venture on to residential roads, because they have limited space to manoeuvre among parked cars.

The council has a small gritting machine to be worked by hand in isolated areas, if officials request it. There is little else you can do, except invest in a shovel and a bit of elbow power to shift that snow.

How are you coping with the cold weather? What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send us an e-mail to

12.30pm: After liaising with contacts at Suffolk County Council, managers look at a 24-hour forecast by PA Weather Centre Ltd. They also study a two to five-day forecast for the area.

Weather centres at Chancery Road in Ipswich, and Ashbocking are consulted for urban and rural

conditions and road surface temperatures.

By 3.15pm: Managers have made their decision on whether gritters will need to go out that night, based on forecasts and current temperatures. Four highways inspectors put the plan in to action.

5pm: The decision is reviewed. The team monitors conditions because the weather can change dramatically in the 12-hour period following 3pm, so the decision-making process goes on throughout the evening and night.

6.30pm: The gritters set off. It takes two and a half hours to cover each primary route, and each is gritted once a night if it is icy or frosty.

After midnight: The gritters can repeat their routes for a second time, if necessary.

Overnight: The 24-hour emergency centre at Ipswich Borough Council takes calls from the police, Ipswich Buses and members of the public who report danger spots on the roads. A Highways manager remains on call.

6.30am: The gritting is over, in time to make way for the rush hour traffic.

Rock salt spread on Suffolk's roads, is mined from natural salt beds in northern England.

Additives help reduce corrosion and improve the spreading characteristics of the salt.

The salt is shipped to Felixstowe and Manningtree, then ferried by lorry to Ipswich.

The salt dome at Gipping House, Great Blakenham holds 800 tonnes.

Gritters go over a weighbridge to calculate how much salt goes on our roads.

Salt will not melt ice below (-21o)CSalt is the ultimate 'sustainable' resource. It is recycled naturally and always ends up back in the sea - ready for recovery and use by a future generation.

1. The best thing to do in extremely bad weather is to stay off the road, to leave the emergency services free to deal with real emergencies instead of rounding up stranded motorists.

2. Drive at a safe speed for the conditions and leave a gap of at least two seconds between yourself and the vehicle in front to reduce the chances of an emergency stop.

3. If you brake on an icy or snow-covered bend the centrifugal force will continue to pull you outwards and the wheels will not grip, causing your vehicle to spin. If your vehicle has ABS, in an emergency situation firmly press the brake pedal - you will feel an unfamiliar vibration or pulsation which proves that the ABS is working -and keep your foot hard on the brake.

4. Check your tyres, because your risk of skidding also increases if your tyres are worn. The legal minimum tread depth for cars is 1.6mm across the central three-quarters of the tread width and around the outer circumference. If you are unsure, get them checked by professionals. Under-inflated tyres will increase your fuel consumption - to be avoided if making a long journey in snow! And over inflated tyres will reduce your grip on the road.

5. Smooth control is essential. You should always aim to brake, steer and change gear as smoothly as possible so as not to affect grip on the road surface.

6. Carry a two rope, spare bulbs, spare fuel, a shovel, Wellington boots, a hazard warning triangle, a spare wheel. Plus have de-icing spray, a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a torch and a blanket inside the car.

7. If your car gets stuck in snow, move slowly backwards and forwards out of the rut using the highest gear you can.

8. If you get caught in a snow drift, don't leave the vehicle. Let help come to you and don't run the engine to keep warm.

9. Clear your windscreens and windows well. The biggest danger is being unable to see properly. You won't be able to make the right decisions if you can't see the road clearly.

10. Look out for icy spots. Isolated patches and gradients remain iced up when other parts have thawed out.

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