Sinn Féin Roads Minister Conor Murphy today warned motorists to take extra care while driving as the winter battle with the elements and cold weather arrived earlier than usual last week.
The Minister congratulated Roads Service's operational staff who kept the road network open, during the early winter period last week.
Mr Murphy said:
"Based on information from the Met Office, Roads Service were prepared and reacted well to the first reports of snow and frost. The winter service operation has started a little earlier this year than usual and 288 personnel are on standby every night to salt main roads across the North, from now until the beginning of April.
"Roads Service's winter gritting service is a massive logistical undertaking that involves salting approximately 7,000 kilometres of roads, in just over three hours, across the North, at a cost of around £74,000 per night. However despite the high quality of the salting operation, ice-free roads cannot be guaranteed. Extra care is needed when driving during cold weather,'' said Mr Murphy.
"It normally takes just over three hours to salt a route, a journey could start or end on an untreated section of road. Also, salt does not act immediately, it needs vehicles to turn it into an effective solution and it can refreeze after spreading, particularly in showery conditions.
"I appeal to all motorists to heed the advice in the Highway Code. Drive with care. Even if roads have been salted, be prepared for road conditions changing over short distances and take care when overtaking gritters. The salting operation is vital to keep main road traffic moving in wintry conditions and is carried out in line with the procedures agreed by the Assembly. Just under £5million is set aside for this essential work each year. On average there are around 75 call outs each year and a massive 52,500 tonnes of salt is spread by Roads Service to help drivers cope with wintry conditions.
"However, even with the most careful and thorough planning and use of state-of-the-art technology, winter service is a battle against nature and in exceptional winter conditions there is bound to be some disruption."
Engineers use state-of- the-art technology to assist with the operation including ice sensors linked to 21 weather stations across the North, installed in conjunction with the Met Office, and thermal mapping of all roads on the salted network. The Met Office uses information from the stations along with their own data to provide forecasts, which are transmitted to engineers' computers.
Roads Service ensures that motorists are kept fully up to date with road conditions when ice or snow is forecast. Information on salting activities is relayed electronically to the broadcast media, to ensure that the latest news on road conditions is available to motorists. A winter service leaflet is also available to help inform the public about winter driving.
Mr Murphy added:
"It is Roads Service's policy to salt main through routes carrying more than 1,500 vehicles per day and other busy through routes carrying more than 1,000 vehicles per day, where there are difficult circumstances, such as steep hills. In applying the criteria, buses get a high weighting. For example, a 40 seater bus is counted as 40 vehicles. Efforts are also made to ensure that small settlements of more than 100 dwellings have a treated link to the salted network and consideration is given to placing grit piles or salt bins at hills, bends or junctions on roads that are not salted."
During long periods of heavy snowfall, maximum effort will be concentrated on the key traffic routes. Clearing snow from motorways and the trunk roads will be given priority, before moving to other main roads and the busiest urban link roads. Once these main routes have been opened to traffic, Roads Service's resources will be diverted to the less heavily trafficked roads, especially in urban areas, and will continue until all roads are cleared. In very deep snow, Roads Service will use its 11 snow blowers, the latest of which can shift 1,600 tonnes of snow per hour. Arrangements are also in place to enlist the help of contractors and farmers to clear blocked roads.
"Roads Service's resources are targeted on busier routes carrying most traffic and while I can understand the concerns of those who use the more lightly trafficked roads that are not included in the salted network, it is simply not practical to salt all roads,'' said the Minister.
Note to Editors
The Roads Service winter service leaflet is available by calling 028 9054 0540 or from the website at www.roadsni.gov.uk