IAN Lawton works alone in the dark, pre-dawn morning, in icy conditions.

And he loves it. “I feel like I am doing my bit to keep people safe on the roads,” says the driver of one of a fleet of gritting lorries.

He has just returned from his usual journey to the outskirts of York, taking in villages including Strensall, Haxby and Stockton-on-the -Forest, as well as parts of the city.

“It is good to know that I am doing a worthwhile job,” he says, adding how eerie it can be as the first on the scene after an early-hours snowfall, and how owls often fly alongside his vehicle.

“At that time in the morning when there is no traffic you feel like the road is own. You see so much wildlife.”

Ian has been doing this valuable job for 14 years. In weather conditions that demand it, he takes the wheel in one of the City of York Council’s frontline contingent of 11 gritting lorries, showering the road surface with salt to provide a safe grip for motorists.

Although it's commonly called grit, the substance is rock salt. It lowers the freezing point of moisture on the road surface, causing existing ice or snow to melt and create a brine, preventing ice from forming.

So far this winter 1,660 tonnes has been used to tackle conditions, with the lowest temperature reached being -6.1C during this month

The £90,000 lorries - five of which are new - follow nine key routes within the city boundaries, collectively carrying between 45 and 60 tonnes of salt.

Of around 500 miles of road within York, around half - 236 miles - is gritted. These are known as ‘priority gritting routes’ as opposed to minor roads and are chosen according to certain criteria.

Crucially, temperatures on the road surface should be predicted to fall below zero degrees centigrade, frost or ice is expected to form on the road or/and snow be forecast.

“We also look at bus routes,” says the council’s commercial business and delivery manager for highways Bill Manby. “There is a winter service plan that defines what we do.”

Footpaths are also subject to criteria, with around 14 miles prioritised, along with 36 miles of cycle routes.

To date, this year the gritting lorries, four small tractors and a number of manual, hand-pushed spreaders, have carried out 38 gritting runs along the nine priority roads, seven along footpaths and three to salt cycle tracks.

“Thirty eight road grits is the most we have done at this point in the season over the past five years,” says Bill.

The average season sees 75 runs. Last year 48 were carried out, the previous year 56 and in 2014/15 the lorries made 72 treatments. The severe winter of 2012/13 saw 113 runs.

“York’s Medieval streets means that some routes have to be tackled by hand-pushed machines,” says Bill.

Each priority road route takes around two hours. Busy periods are avoided. “We start around 4am and have a clear run. We have covered the routes by 6.30pm.”

Despite their efforts, they do attract criticism from members of the public, some of whom may come across slippery, grit-free surfaces.

“When people are infuriated we sympathise - we are trying to cover as much ground as possible with a finite resource,” says Bill.

The team are close weather watchers. They liaise with MeteoGroup, whose state-of-the-art technology and expert meteorologists provide accurate and up-to-date forecasts for local authorities and businesses across the world.

“We share the service with North Yorkshire County Council,” explains Bill. The Council has its own weather stations, at Knapton north of the city and at Hopgrove roundabout to the east.

This service is operated in partnership with weather prediction equipment provider and monitoring company Vaisala, and provides information including air temperature and surface temperature humidity. It can also provide real-time images of the surface state.

“We can log on at any time to check the road surface temperature and the state of the road - whether it is moist and whether it has traces of salt,” explains Bill.

Approaching weather conditions and longer-term forecasts are closely monitored.

“It is not guess work,” says the council’s planning and transport boss Councillors Ian Gillies. “We are checking well-ahead. Some days the conditions can change quickly, such as if you get a shower of rain on top of an already-freezing surface.”

Such occurrences necessitate gritting before and after the squall.

“We carry out day-to-day precautionary treatment,” says Bill.

The mountain of salt - which comes from Cheshire - is kept in a building at Hazel Court eco depot, off James Street, where around 3,000 tonnes can be stored.

Outside the store, Ian uncouples his lorry from the gritter and heads out to complete his shift fixing roads. Gritting lorries are multi-functional, rapidly transforming themselves into highway maintenance vehicles.

Alongside the mobile gritting operation, a less obvious army of gritters is also helping to make York’s streets safe.

Members of the public serve an invaluable purpose in their role as volunteer snow wardens.

York has more than 200 and both Cllr Gillies and Bill cannot praise them highly enough.

Each issued with a snow shovel, salt, high-visibility vest, gloves and a hat, they are trained by the council in how to spread to gain maximum coverage and in health and safety.

“They have been brilliant, so supportive,” says Bill. He cites Dunnington’s group of volunteers as a “shining example” of how communities can come together and help out.

“We have areas where individuals help too,” he adds.

With seven outlying villages in his ward, Cllr Gillies sees the advantages of wardens at first-hand. “In more rural communities and in the suburbs it is so beneficial, with volunteers salting residential areas and areas outside shops. People can volunteer by contacting their local councillor or through the council website.”

For salt to work properly on pavements it needs to be walked on, says Cllr Gillies.

“If someone just dropped a lot of salt down it would not make any difference - it has to bed in.”

Snow ploughs are only deployed with falls of at least 5cm.

In some part of the country gritters have a special significance. In Lincolnshire, when winter arrives, the local bishop visits each depot to bless the vehicles in a special ceremony.

And Doncaster invited the public to name two of its new gritting vehicles, following a similar competition by Oldham Council, who ended up with Nicole Saltslinger.

The winning names, David Plowie and Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Anti-Slip Machinery, joined a fleet of gritters with names such as Gritney Spears, Brad Grit, and Usain Salt.

York City Council has no plans to follow suit with its new lorries. “That’s not something we are looking at, although I can think of a few names they get called,” jokes Cllr Gillies.

He pays tribute to Bill and his team, who pull out all the stops to keep the roads, pavements and cycle tracks safe, sometimes in the face of criticism from members of the public.

“They do a fantastic job,” he says.