A national shortage of grit is putting lives at risk on Britain's snow covered roads, the country' biggest motoring organisation warned yesterday.

Britain Jan 2009 Snow
© Reuters Snow: cold could kill tens of thousands of elderly people, council leaders have claimed

The AA said many roads were turning into "death traps" and warned that the country faced a dangerous "road safety crisis".

With weather forecasters predicting another five days of freezing temperatures and snow, the AA called on the Government to step in and ask European countries to provide emergency supplies of salt.

Around 40,000 tonnes are already on the way from Spain. Critics said the grit shortage had proved Britain was woefully unprepared for the extended cold snap.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed two days ago that some councils would run out of salt by the weekend.

Several have now either run out or have such low stock levels that very few roads are being gritted. In some areas less than 20 per cent of roads have been treated.

The AA said councils were "running on empty" with the worst affected areas in Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Derbyshire and parts of Wales. It said some cities including St Albans, Herts were "unable to cope".

Some councils have used almost their entire winter supply of salt, amounting to thousands of tonnes, in less than a week and they are now down to their last 100 tonnes.

At least eight are prioritising A roads and abandoning other routes to freeze over and become impassable. Wiltshire is having to "water down" its remaining salt with sand.

AA President, Edmund King said last night: "Some of the councils only have 100 tonnes left and that's nothing, it's a drop in the ocean. Many, many local roads are going untreated and drivers don't know which are or aren't until they start skidding all over the place. There are also hundreds of miles of frozen pavements.

"The Government should step in. If we can't up the production of salt, and it appears we are at full stretch, then you have to look at supplies from elsewhere like Holland.

"In St Albans cars couldn't get up the main road. Surely in this day and age we can keep the main roads in our main cities running."

Mr King blamed councils for consistently cutting back on winter maintenance in recent years and said they had been "caught out" by the cold snap.

RAC motoring strategist Adrian Tink said: "With UK motorists giving the Government ยฃ45 billion a year in taxes, they will feel pretty annoyed that there isn't enough cash to keep all the road networks moving."

Mark Wallace, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "It defies belief that the Government was so badly prepared for the snowy conditions. It's disgraceful."

Warwickshire is rationing gritting, while in Wiltshire only main routes are being gritted. Gloucestershire halved its salting operation to preserve stocks.

Tory local government spokesman Caroline Spelman said: "Labour ministers need to be open about the true extent of the grit crisis and explain why there are insufficient supplies."

Cheshire-based Salt Union, which operates Britain's biggest rock salt mine and provides 90 per cent of the salt used on the roads, said it could not meet demand.

The company said it had looked into importing salt from Germany but there was also high demand for salt there and it would take time to ship it to the UK by boat.

Spokeswoman Katie Moffat, said: "We are mining at maximum capacity, we are extracting 30,000 tons a week and that is going out as soon as we extract it. Because of the prolonged bad weather our stores are empty."

DA Baldwin and Son in Wolverhampton, the biggest supplier in the West Midlands, completely ran out of supplies.

But a British Salt depot in Middlewich, Cheshire, had 100,000 tonnes of low-grade salt which had accumulated over the 15 years as a by-product from manufacturing table salt. Some 200 lorries queued to collect it.

Derek Turner, from the Highways Agency which is responsible for motorways and A roads, admitted: "The salt supplies are being gradually used up. We have about three or four days left."

Several councils accused the Highways Agency of hijacking its salt supplies. A spokesman for Wiltshire, which has used 7,000 tonnes and has only 1,000 tonnes left, said: "All new salt supplies are currently being directed to national priorities."

Ministers face calls for an urgent statement to Parliament over the crisis. Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon said: "We are trying to encourage the movement of salt from areas that have enough, I won't say plenty, to those areas that are having some difficulty."

Paul Bettison, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Environment Board, said: "Salt is available in other European countries. This a real opportunity for the Government to show leadership of the country and to lead us all in the quest for more salt."

:: The British Carrot Growers' Association yesterday said sales of the vegetable have gone up as children used them to decorate snowmen.