Commuters reported flat batteries and frozen engines in chills as low as minus 14C. An AA insurance claim line also took 60 per cent more calls than usual as motorists shunted and bumped their way to work on black ice.
The RAC said it was dealing with five times the normal level of calls for this time of year and seven or eight times more in the south and west. More chaos seems certain today with forecasts of overnight snow sweeping in from the Atlantic overnight to cover much of Britain.
Last night temperatures were not expected to be so severe, dipping between minus 2C and minus 5C, though a south-easterly wind will make it feel colder.
By yesterday evening, the AA had dealt with more than 20,000 breakdowns, with the 1996 all-time record of 23,561 jobs in danger of being beaten. An extra 300 AA patrols were on the roads and every available resource was pulled in.
"Training courses and office meetings have been cancelled and even training officers are being sent out to deal with breakdowns," said Alistair Cheyne, the AA director of operations.
Drivers were urged to equip themselves with anti-freeze and adequate car batteries and advised to drive with caution, use gears and not brakes to slow down and avoid sudden jerky movements.
"Just because you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle or traction control doesn't mean that you can ignore the conditions," said Andrew Howard, the AA's head of road safety. "For thousands of drivers, this is the first time they have driven in such treacherous conditions."
Gritting could not shift ice from many roads in Scotland, which recorded temperatures as low as minus 10C yesterday, Wales, where there had been heavy weekend snowfall, and England's North-east. Essex, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire were hit by a combination of ice and frozen snow. In the North- west, many broken-down vehicles added to difficulties, and ice on main and rural roads in Devon and Cornwall compounded problems from weekend flooding.
There were no serious accidents though there were a large number of minor shunts and collisions. Eight drivers were involved in a collision on the M5 in Worcestershire. None of those involved was seriously injured, police said. Snow was predicted in Northern Ireland first last night, then Wales, the Midlands and the North, with several inches of snow in some places to be followed by rain and warmer temperatures.
Forecasters said that by lunchtime today the whole country should be experiencing a typical murky thaw, to be followed by showery conditions over the next couple of days. "By mid-afternoon we should have seen the back of the snowfall, although there will still be snow on the ground," said the PA WeatherCentre.
The bookmaker William Hill said it had cut the odds about snow falling at any time during the 24 hours of 25 December from 6 to 1 to 5 to 1 in London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Birmingham. "Just a small fall of snow on Christmas Day could cost us pounds 100,000," said a spokesman.
The freezing weather followed a day of fatalities on the roads. At least six people died. A three-year-old girl, on holiday with her family from France, was killed when a Mitsubishi people carrier hit ice and skidded into a ditch at Oxshott, Surrey on Sunday morning.
An inquest is to be held into the death of Audrey Constant, from Drancy, near Paris. Nine people, including her parents and a brother and sister, were hurt. In Hungerford, Berkshire, a woman motorist was killed and seven people seriously hurt in a pile-up on the M4. Another motorist died on the A34 in Milton, Oxfordshire, when his vehicle hit the back of a lorry.
A 65-year-old man died when his car hit a wall in Swindon, Wiltshire, and a 61-year-old man was killed when his Rover Metro was crashed in Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire. An elderly man died when his car ran into the River Lea in Waltham Abbey, Essex.Reuse content