There was no good reason for highways authorities getting it wrong when confronted by the latest cold snap. The preceding two winters presented the travelling public with some very nasty conditions and councils with real headaches when it came to clearing a path through the snow. Yet these obstacles also provided an opportunity to learn lessons and put theory into practice. And it is not as if we lack the resources to deal with the current cold snap. Figures published just before temperatures fell showed there were 2.7 million tonnes of salt at the ready – a million more than last year.
And yet despite everything we continue to face disruption.
Over and above any failings by the authorities – and by and large these have yet to be shown – there are at least two other issues which contribute to the chaos:
1) Much of our road network is at or close to capacity, certainly during peak hours. It does not take much to snarl up our main arteries. An accident here, a lane closed there, reduced visibility and speed somewhere else. Even if a road is not completely closed – merely down from two to one, or three to two lanes – there will be congestion. Just witness what happened when the A4 Hammersmith flyover closed earlier this year. With the best will in the world, wide-ranging snow fall only increases the likelihood of something going wrong.
2) The UK is not a cold country. Despite recent experience, much of the UK is not used to seeing snow and is not used coping with it. It remains the exception rather than the rule and as drivers that shows up both in our lack of experience and equipment to deal with it.
Take winter (not studded) tyres for example. These are common place across much of the rest of Europe and can make a real difference on snow and ice, and indeed in the wet. If you have not experienced them it is difficult to appreciate just how much traction they give especially when, at first glance, there seems to be little visible difference between what most of us have on our vehicles year round.
It is easy to see why – according to Continental tyres – use of the winter variant is compulsory or recommended in places as diverse as Austria, Belgium, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Sweden and Turkey. In some areas of France and Italy local laws make the use of winter tyres mandatory rather than being left to the whim of the driver.
Clearly if we in the UK want to cope effortlessly with adverse conditions then we need the right kit and driving skills. Keeping moving in the snow takes teamwork. It is not enough for drivers to point the finger solely at the authorities when things go wrong – though that might be appropriate too. All of us who take to the roads have a responsibility to ensure we are properly equipped to get where we are going no matter what hazards we might encounter.