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 Winter Road Surface Treatment 

In many parts of England, the main form of road surface treatment necessary during the winter is the spreading of a mixture of grit and salt.  This always takes place on selected roads when conditions are definitely icy.  A difficult situation arises, however, when the weather is at the borderline of icy conditions, especially when meteorological forecasts state "temperature will be below zero but surfaces are expected to remain dry."

Engineer Officers are closely involved in the salting and gritting operations.  The quality of the grit/salt mixture, its effectiveness, its purchase and storage at suitable points, the vehicles and equipment used, the roads selected, the routes followed, the speed at which the work is done, etc., etc., generally come under the aegis of the technical services or highways department, in which there is a preponderance of engineers, including a number with identified management responsibilities.

When a borderline meteorological forecast is received, most authorities do not automatically call out the gritting/salting teams for that may involve unnecessary expenditure and an excess of corrosive salt on the roads, both of which result in complaints by members of the public.  Moreover in an unexpectedly harsh winter there may be shortages of grit/salt mixture, not just locally but nationally, or it may be difficult to move supplies from central stocks because of the same wintry Conditions.  It may therefore become necessary to conserve whatever local stocks there are.

One aid to decision-making about borderline conditions is to carry out local tests on parts of the road system particularly prone to ice formation.  How many test points should there be and where should they be located?  What tests should be carried out, who should carry out the tests (which are often needed in: the middle of the night), how should the results be collated and who should make the final decision about gritting and salting on that particular occasion?  These are questions to which engineer Officers usually have to supply the answers and Councillors, engineering or otherwise, have to approve in broad outline.

For the vast majority of occasions the whole scheme works well and achieves. a satisfactory balance between the many conflicting requirements outlined.  Occasionally, however, with the system working as intended, a decision is taken not to treat the surfaces but unexpected conditions occur which cause icy patches on the roads.  This has led to loss of life.