A SECRET weapon is being used in the battle to keep public highways open in Runcorn and Widnes as winter bites - sugar..
Halton Council is the first local authority in the North West to introduce a revolutionary technique, first pioneered in the USA, to combat the effects of ice on the roads.
It involves sugar-coated salt being laid by council gritters, instead of the usual rock salt.
The by-product of liquid molasses - provided by a subsidiary of Tate & Lyle sugar refiners - used to be discarded..
But, when combined with rock salt, it has a number of major advantages over the normal method of gritting roads.
Firstly, it is more consistent and doesn't form itself into lumps like conventional salt, and is easier to load onto the winter gritting trucks.
It also spreads better and sticks to the road so that grit is not lost because of passing traffic. This makes it more efficient to use as contractors do not need to put as much salt down to get the same effect.
Another advantage is that it reduces the corrosive effect that salt naturally has on roads, and especially concrete and steel bridges.
This is a particular consideration for Halton, which is responsible for the Runcorn-Widnes bridge.
Finally, the new product is easier to store in outside depots. When rain hits rock salt, it runs off as brine and ends up in the sewer, damaging the environment.
This doesn't happen with the sugar-coated grit, which means it can be stored for longer without so much wastage.
Colin Dutton, section leader of the highway network at Halton Council, said: "This is something we have been looking at for some time and I believe we are the first local authority in the North West of England to be using the new product consistently.
"The advantages work in our favour. We have a lot of very dense urban areas to treat and we also look after the biggest local authority bridge in the country.
"The erosion of steel structures is very important to us, and that was a big factor in using this product.
"We want a second Mersey crossing, and we are optimistic that the Government is going to approve it in the near future.
"If we can reduce the corrosion it means that both the existing, and any new bridge, will last longer and is cheaper to maintain. "Contractors find it easier to spread and use, and there is also less erosion of our gritters."
The salt is coated at source and costs a few pounds more per ton. Mr Dutton said because less salt was used on the roads the extra cost was compensated for by the savings.
Halton Council uses a computerised weather prediction system where information from the Meteorological Office is fed to the highways team.
The temperature of the roads is monitored so that in winter weather, the worst affected roads are targeted first.
A new tracking system using satellite technology gives the exact position of the gritting vehicles in case of emergencies.