I was asked on the radio this week what sort of weather the AA was expecting this winter. Quite how I was supposed to know is beyond me. The AA’s crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s.
I can guarantee that it will be dark at night. Apart from that we really can’t say. There may be mystics counting sheep on the hillsides or drawing inferences from the behaviour of pigeons, but the science just isn’t there to be accurate about what will happen.
In the last three Decembers we have had extremes of -17 degrees centigrade and deep-lying snow; we have also had 16 degrees and people wearing T-shirts.
Ireland doesn’t get snow. Not really. In a typical year there will be an average of 4 - 6 days when snow is lying on the ground and even then it will be only a thin little dusting. Big snow events just don’t happen here.
At least they didn’t until 2010. That year saw two extreme winters. We took a hammering in January, spent ten months telling ourselves that we would never see the likes again in our lifetimes only to get an even bigger freeze in December. By the time the white Christmas arrived it had entirely lost its charm.
You may remember that during those freeze events we came perilously close to running out of road salt. Remaining stocks were severely rationed and many roads left untreated as we waited desperately for deliveries to arrive.
In a typical year Ireland uses 60,000 tonnes of salt to treat roads. In that second winter of 2010 we used 180,000 tonnes. This year the mercury hasn’t dropped at all yet and we have 210,000 tonnes in stock ready to go, with resources in place to add more if needed.
But of course it is far more likely that we will get a familiar Irish winter. That means thoroughly damp and miserable conditions and fog. We will get wet days and frosty mornings. An Irish winter is dark and dirty, with plenty of rain and poor visibility.
That is actually a much more dangerous combination. In that freak December of 2010 we had the lowest number of road deaths on record. In the conditions lots of people cancelled their journeys and those who were on the roads could see that it was lethal and acted accordingly.
When there is snow lying a foot deep on the ground and the road is compacted ice it is completely obvious that you cannot drive fast so people don’t. The travel disruption was enormous and there were lots of minor tips and collisions but there were very few serious crashes and almost no deaths.
A normal winter is far worse. We will get frosty days or days when it looks like a beautiful sunny afternoon but overnight ice lingers in shady spots, under bridges and on secondary roads. Death lying silently in wait for the overconfident driver.
We also have the Christmas party season to contend with which is a regular peak for drink-driving collisions. In fact it is far more important to make sure that there are enough Gardai on duty than it is to worry about what to do if we get a major snow fall.
One area where our crystal ball does work very well is in predicting that cars will break down. December and January are always the busiest months for the year for the AA breakdown service.
Winter takes a toll on a car’s electrics in particular and we will see a big spike in battery failures caused by damp weather as much as by frost. Especially in recent years a lot of people are putting off car servicing to save some money.
While that is entirely understandable it also means that more cars are breaking down and we are seeing more signs of wear and tear as basic upkeep is being put on the long finger. If you can afford it, now is the time to make sure that the car is in good shape to see you through to Spring.
It is also worth checking the tyres for damage and wear now before the roads turn truly nasty.