Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from the AA (AWC 06)

1. Summary

1.1 Winter 2010-2011 was the third successive ‘bad’ winter to hit the majority of Britain. Out of the last three winters it was undoubtedly the worst, in terms of very low temperatures, snowfall and its early arrival. Weather forecasters’ early seasonal predications for winter 2010 – 2011 appeared to be in conflict which meant that the exceptionally harsh conditions were a surprise to many. It was suggested by Roger Harrabin in the Radio Times that Met Office predictions for an exceptionally cold start to winter had not been made public because of potential embarrassment caused by the unreliability of long range forecasting.

1.2 The impact of winter 2010-2011 on the roads was particularly bad with many areas snowbound for many days. There were instances of massive congestion and disruption, even on motorways, and many people were trapped in cars overnight. The impact on the national economy was very significant with companies suffering diminished workforces and shops and businesses devoid of customers.

1.3 The AA’s roadside assistance services were in huge demand and it experienced its busiest period for breakdowns in its history – the previous record having been set in winter 2009-2010 when between mid December 2009 and mid January 2010 it attended 544,000 breakdowns. In addition to its large number of regular patrols, the AA deployed its mobile Special Operations Teams (SORT) to the worst affected areas – using ‘kinetic tow ropes’ these patrols managed to free a large number of heavy lorries, including a snow plough, which were stuck on the A57 between Sheffield and Worksop. The SORT teams also rescued motorists and carried out a number of mercy missions. Getting to our members was difficult at times, particularly on minor roads which were largely not cleared of snow and ice.

2. Winter road service – policies

2.1 The AA supported amendments to legislation requiring highway authorities in England and Wales to do all that is reasonably practical to prevent snow and ice becoming a hazard on highways. This mirrored the requirement already in force in Scotland. The AA accepts that not all roads can be included in salting and snow clearance routes. It is accepted that highway authorities must devise a hierarchy of routes for winter operations.

2.2 Most authorities publish clear guidance to the public about their local winter service routes. However, the AA does not accept a ‘post-code lottery’ whereby some highway authorities include more roads in their winter road service arrangements than others. This means drivers do not receive a consistent level of service and may be at risk if a neighbouring authority has a less extensive winter service road network.

2.3 It is essential that the value for money aspects of winter road service is given more weight when both local and national government are reviewing their levels of investment. It is estimated that even in an average winter the down-time of the road network, due to snow and ice, may cost the economy as much as £1bn. Over the last decade between 500 and 1,000 people are killed or injured each year in accidents on roads affected by snow and ice. Hospital admissions also increase because pedestrians fall on icy roads and pavements.

3. The issue of salt supply

3.1 There is no doubt that following a period of mild winters (prior to the last three) many highway authorities reduced their salt stocks and storage arrangements. It is estimated that there were 250,000 tonnes less in stock at the start of winter 2009/2010 than a decade before. To some extent this can be mitigated by more effective use of salt through new techniques and improved weather monitoring but the ‘shortage’ in winter 2009/2010 led to very serious problems.

3.2 Prior to winter 2009/2010 the AA President wrote to the Local Government Association warning that salt stocks would be insufficient to cope with a bad winter and this concern was largely proved correct. In many places salt stocks became critically low, but fortunately the weather relented at the 11th hour.

3.3 The AA was concerned that the UK still appeared vulnerable to supply problems at the start of winter 2010/2011. There were rumours of salt re-supply orders not having been fulfilled by the start of winter. Many highway authorities were still dependent on contracted ‘just-in-time’ deliveries but as the AA has highlighted these deliveries will probably all be required at the same time in a harsh winter such that the supply chain cannot cope. ‘Salt Cell’, once activated, has also re-directed some of those re-supply orders. This was recently highlighted in an Early Day Motion 1358 (27-01-2011) (see annex).

4 The views of AA members

4.1 The AA Populus panel is Europe’s largest dedicated motoring opinion panel. It comprises 170,000 AA members who take a monthly poll. Response rates vary between 15,000 and 20,000 per month.

4.2 AA Populus conducted a poll on 12-15 January 2010 to establish satisfaction levels with local authority snow and ice clearance during the bad weather in winter 2009/2010. 20,109 AA members responded. The results are as follows:

4.2.1 Minor roads

75% of AA members said their local authorities had not done very well (26%) or not very at all (49%) in gritting minor roads. Only 2% said the councils had done very well.

4.2.3. Main roads

81% of survey respondents said the treatment of these roads was acceptable (26%), carried out reasonably well (29%) or very well (26%).

4.2.4. Pavements

86% of respondents were in some way critical of councils' efforts. More significantly, 65% of the 20,000-strong sample said local autho rity efforts were not very good at all .

4.2.5. Regional variation

Drivers in the South and the North West were the most unhappy with their councils. Respectively, 82% and 83% of respondents in those areas said councils did 'not very well' or 'not at all well' with the gritting on minor roads. The same areas were also least impressed with local authority efforts on main roads. However, Northern Ireland showed 92% satisfaction.

Local authorities in northern counties were most criticised for the state of the pavements during the bad weather with 90% of respondents in the North West and 89% in the Yorkshire and Humberside area saying that councils did 'not very well' or 'not at all well'. The South and West Midlands were close behind on 88%.

4.3 Further AA Populus winter driving / gritting surveys were undertaken between 26 November and 3 December 2010 (15,927 responses) and 23 December 2010 and 4 January 2011 (15,199 responses). The results are as follows:

4.3.1. Gritting

A small majority of AA members (51%) expect ed road gritting in winter 2010/2011 to be better than last year . However, in the latter survey (after the most recent bad weather) this had dropped by 19% to 32% who thought gritting had actually been any better.

41% expect gritting to be about the sa me and 7% expect ed it to be worse. In the latter survey (after the most recent bad weather) 39 % said it was about the same but 4 times more ( 28% ) said it was actually worse than expected .

It probable that the views expressed in the later survey were influenced by the severity of the weather.

4.3.2. The 26 December – 3 December 2010 poll also asked w hat respondents had done to prepare for winter driving , what the government and authorities should do to keep the UK moving when it snows and how willing people are to ‘self help’ :

4.3.3. 44% of drivers had done nothing to prepare for severe con ditions.

4.3.4. Of those that had prepared for winter:

· 39% put a shovel , blankets etc. in the car

· 19% bought a sturdy pair of walking boots

· 6% made arrangements to stay with friends/colleagues if the weather suddenly turns bad

· 4% bought all season tyres

· 3% bought winter tyres

· 1% bought snow chains

· 12% took other measures

4.3.5. In terms of what the government and local authorities should do to keep the UK moving:

· 14% support mandatory winter tyres

· 23% support restricting HGV’s in icy conditions

· 17% support removing motorway central barriers to free trapped vehicles

· 39% support need for more signs warning of road closures

· 56% support police stopping traffic joining blocked motorways

· 20% support setting up emergency teams to help with motorway blockages

· 56% support formation of local snow clearance teams (farmers/contractors etc)

· 36% support use of the Army

4.3.6. With growing interest in the ‘Big Society’ ethos the AA Populus panel were asked whether they would be prepared to help clear the road where they lived if salt/grit was deposited at the end:

· 88% said they would definitely or probably help clear the road.

· 9% would probably or definitely not help.

5. The impact of ice and snow late 2010

5.1. AA / TrafficMaster analysis of traffic incidents during November and December 2010 indicate that snow and ice alone (not accident / incident due to snow) resulted in approximately 406 hours of significant disruption on major roads and this includes 237 hours of road closures. These statistics should be viewed with some caution as road closure monitoring during the period of most severe weather was subject to some disruption.

5.2 The longest duration problems noted during November and December 2010 were:

A40 at Raglan, South Wales disrupted for 19 hours 24 minutes.

A68 at Jedborough closed for 18 hours 56 minutes.

M9 Scotland closed for 16 hours 46 minutes.

A2 Kent (eastbound) closed for 9 hours 57 minutes at Cobham.

There were many other closures of more minor roads which are not listed. There was also a very significant 2 day closure of the M8 in Scotland on 6/7 December and many other localised incidents.

5.3 Whilst the weather can sometimes overwhelm the best snow clearance operations the AA believes that it is important to prevent grid lock and ‘recover’ roads much more quickly than has been experienced recently. The AA has said:

· More volunteers, and even the army, should be ready for assisting when exceptionally bad weather strikes which blocks major arteries.

· Farmers, civil engineering firms with plant and equipment, landscaping firms and any firm with useful services should be registered and paid a bounty for stepping in during severe winter emergencies.

· Highway authorities should make greater efforts to prevent snow compaction on motorways and trunk roads which cause paralysis when an ice slab forms – road closures must be effected more speedily.

· Traffic officers and the police should escort snow ploughs and gritters, under blue lights, to worst affected areas – in grid locked conditions snow ploughs and gritters are often stuck in the queues.

· There should be strategic stockpiles of liquid de-icing agents which can deal more effectively with slab ice on motorways and trunk roads.

· Provision of travel/traffic information should be improved both on-road, through variable message signing – preventing traffic from joining blocked roads – and on-line for more reliable journey planning before setting out.

· For a second winter running both road and rail travel information websites struggled at the time they were most needed.

· Innovative techniques to free people and vehicles which are trapped must be developed e.g. kinetic ropes.

· There is a need to identify and develop remedies to lorry ‘blockage hot-spots’, the places where they commonly lose traction and block complete carriageways.

· Snow fall severity can often be very localised and random for example, at one stage Croydon was paralysed by snow but 10 miles away conditions were fine – there is no reason why additional mobile resources (regardless of local authority or operational territory) cannot be rapidly deployed to the worst hit places if they are not needed in their own area.

5.4 Aside from the periods of exceptional snowfall the AA remains concerned about a number of incidents which occurred during ‘marginal’ weather conditions. In numerous parts of the UK there have been several incidents where pre-salting appears to have not been carried out or not carried out properly and roads became icy causing accidents, often in the early morning. This leads us to believe decision makers could be making judgements to preserve salt stocks rather than considering the risk of temperatures dipping lower than predicted. This occurred widely in the south of England on the mornings on the 9th and 10th January 2011. This resulted in the closure of the M3 in Hampshire and a spate of accidents (see annex).

6. AA Operations

6.1 The AA experienced its busiest day ever on Monday 20 December 2010 when 28,000 breakdowns were dealt with. The majority were weather related, in particular battery problems. AA patrols did their best to reach members who were off the treated routes but numerous roads were treacherous or impassable in many parts of the UK.

The AA’s diary of breakdown operations and areas worst affected can be found via the link in the appendix*.

6.2 On Monday 20th December AA Insurance received 100% more motor insurance claims than normal with 71% of callers saying their accident was due to snow and ice.


Early Day Motion 1358 (27-01-2011)

That this House considers the Department for Transport's actions in managing and prioritising salt supplies by stealth whilst insisting that there is no crisis, denying that it is putting pressure on salt mines and suppliers to withhold supplies properly negotiated and ordered by some local authorities, whilst prioritising orders from other local authorities, to be disingenuous; and calls on the Department for Transport to publish immediately open and transparent details of the meetings of SALTCELL, which it considers to have been re-named to avoid questions from hon. Members on these issues, along with details of the local authorities prioritised, and the tonnage supplied to such authorities and to take immediate steps to prioritise salt supplies to local authorities such as Durham County Council which, having learnt lessons from the previous winter, increased its salt reserves, properly ordered appropriate levels of salt in advance, increased storage facilities, increased winter maintenance vehicles and equipment, sourced salt globally, and which still finds itself crucially short of salt due to the actions of the Department for Transport.

Crashes cause A1 misery
Evening Chronicle (Newcastle Upon Tyne), 21/01/2011, p.7, Unattributed
Icy road conditions led to three cars skidding off the A1 (M) near Chester-le-Street, County Durham, leading to a section of the road being closed. An AA spokesman added: "The accident caused a lot of congestion and traffic was slow in both directions."


February 2011