The maxim ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ could not be more appropriate when it comes to road winter maintenance believes Howard Robinson, Chief Executive of the Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA).

For real road network resilience against the impact of winter then a proper programme of maintenance needs to be undertaken beforehand. From April to September highway authorities need to implement planned programmes of maintenance that will ensure roads are resilient to the rainfall, freeze and thaw cycles of winter. Failure to do so will store up costly problems for the following year.

If a road surface is not kept in good order rain water can seep through cracks and collect underneath. The water then freezes and expands forcing up the road surface. The weight of traffic then helps to break up the surface and potholes are formed.

The significant consequence of not carrying out adequate maintenance is demonstrated by the 2017 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey. Produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) the survey reports that the cost to restore the local road network to a satisfactory condition is over £12 billion and that it would take 13 years to address the backlog of repairs in England and 9 years in Wales. The Local Government Association (LGA) believes that the pothole repair bill could reach £14 billion in two years. LGA points out that the local roads network suffers from decades of under investment. Over the remaining years of the decade the Government will invest more than £1.1 million mile in maintaining national roads – which make up just 3 per cent of the total road network. This investment is in stark contrast with the £27,000 per mile investment for maintaining local roads which make up 97 per cent of England’s road network.

Road users are fully aware of the poor condition. A report from the RAC found that 89% of its members are ‘frustrated’ at the condition of their local A and B roads with only 2% believing that local roads are adequately maintained. Motorists pay £46 billion a year in taxes but just £2.7 billion of this is spent on road maintenance.

Cash strapped local highway authorities are doing what they can. Over the last year they have filled in over 2 million potholes. However, the lack of assured real long-term funding means that much of this is expensive reactive repair rather than cost-effective preventative maintenance that would have prevented the potholes from forming in the first place. Reactive repair rather than preventive programmed maintenance is an illogical approach. Particularly as it costs only £2m2 to surface dress and maintain a road for ten years but costs an average £57m2 to repair one pothole.

Undertaking regular and timely maintenance of roads using surface treatments such as surface dressing is a far more sustainable and cost effective approach than allowing roads to deteriorate to a poor condition requiring more costly intervention. There are a wide range of surface treatments available to ensure optimum performance of roads that are fast to apply, generate no or minimum waste, lower the carbon footprint of roads and provide cost economies that allow local authorities to get the best value from their pressurised highways budgets. Timely intervention by selecting and applying the right surface treatment for the job will significantly extend the service life of roads, delaying the time when structural maintenance will be required.

Extending the life of road surfaces by undertaking planned maintenance ensures better long-term texture and better skid resistance. Both are key factors for safety during the winter. Highway authorities have a duty under Section 41 (1A) of the Highways Act 1980 to ensure “so far is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow and ice”. This requirement is fundamental to the winter maintenance programmes carried out by highways authorities.

Having ensured that their road networks are in a good state of repair during the road maintenance season of April to September, highway authorities should have a winter maintenance programme scheduled for October to March to ensure that they are able to respond to adverse weather conditions. This includes having:

  • A well maintained vehicle fleet of gritters equipped with the necessary snow ploughs
  • Access to snow blowers
  • Drivers trained and familiar with their treatment routes
  • Access to short-term and long-term weather forecasts
  • Duty rotas for 24-hour coverage
  • Adequate supplies of salt held in depots

Highway authorities together with their private sector partner organisations need to ensure that they review and continue to develop their winter maintenance strategies. That entails continued investment in monitoring both road surface and weather conditions and in having systems in place that enable decision makers and operatives to use the resultant data to make the right decisions at the right time. This includes ensuring that treatments are timed so that the salt and grit are spread on roads prior to the formation of ice.

Key to this is the snow forecast. On receipt of this highway authorities will instigate a pre-planned response that may include the establishment of a ‘snow desk’ to facilitate co-ordination of resources. Salt and grit will be spread prior to the snow’s arrival. The vehicle fleet will be fitted with snowploughs and operatives placed on stand-by. On the arrival of snow, the fleet with be sent out to spread more salt and to plough away any snow accumulations. For extreme snowfall dedicated snow-blowers may be deployed.

Last year’s LGA’s Winter Readiness Survey demonstrates the readiness of highway authorities. It reported that councils had stockpiled 1.2 million tonnes of grit and a fleet of state-of-the-art gritters were ready to be deployed with 75 per cent of these using GPS technology.

The need for a prepared approach has been highlighted by extreme weather concerns raised by the Met Office that the UK could soon see a repeat of the high levels of flooding of recent years with a predicted one-in-three chance that there would be new record set for monthly rainfall during coming winters. The Met Office used a super-computer to simulate possible extreme weather conditions and found a 34 per cent chance of a regional monthly rainfall record being set in of England and Wales. This also highlights the need for the roads to be well-maintained in the first instance in order to negate the impact of flooding and water ingress.

Winter maintenance for the road network is part of the overall annual maintenance cycle. Roads need to be monitored, repaired and maintained during Spring, Summer and Autumn in readiness for the impact of Winter. Although the focus of winter maintenance is to keep the roads clear of ice and snow, the impact these have on a poorly maintained road surface cannot be ignored. It really is ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.