Automotive Safety & Rules of the Road, Road Test Special, Winter Driving

Is Your Car Ready For Winter? Winter Tires Vs. Summer/All-Season Tires

Has winter arrived in your part of the world yet? In my area we usually get our first big snowstorm on or around the 15th of November, but so far this year we’re still having well-above freezing temperatures with no snow in sight!  The inevitable is going to happen sooner or later, but my usual concern when the snow starts to fly is: when do I change from my summer tires to my winter tires?

I keep a record of all the work done on my car, from oil changes to brake jobs to tire changes. That’s why I know that the middle of November is my signal to change to winter tires.

When do you change over? In Quebec it’s mandatory, but for the rest of North America in the snow-belt, it’s up to each driver if they choose to have a set of winter tires installed on their car.

Are you one of the thousands of procrastinators that upon waking on the morning of the first big snowfall look out the window and say?: “Quick! Call the tire store, I need new winter tires this year!”

Get in line. I’ve talked to tire store managers on the first snow fall of the year. They just shake their heads and tell me it happens EVERY year and then everyone wants their winter tires – NOW! Usually the “smart ones” skip work and go straight to the tire shop as early as possible, but for many, waiting in line for 6 or 7 hours is not uncommon.

One thing to remember is that winter tires are NOT snow tires. You don’t need to have snow on the ground before putting the winter tires on – it just has to be cold for them to do their job. And by the way – did you notice I call them “Winter Tires”, not snow tires? That’s right – snow tires have been replaced by winter tires – tires designed to get you through slush, snow, ice and cold weather.

If you have performance tires on your vehicle, then icy roads, slush and snow will present difficulties – these tires weren’t designed to handle that mess. They’re not designed for cold weather either, so just because there’s no snow or ice on the road, your summer tires aren’t giving you the proper grip for cold weather. Winter tires are designed to perform in temperatures of -40 degrees before hardening, whereas all-season tires can begin to harden at -7 C (19 degrees F). Summer and performance tires are designed for handling on dry pavement with the ability to provide fair traction on wet roads – but not ice or snow.

All season tires are original equipment on many vehicles and they provide traction on ice and snow if driven carefully, but these tires would be better named “three-season” tires. They work well in spring, summer and fall, but don’t provide the ultimate traction, grip and handling that performance tires will on dry pavement, nor anywhere near the traction of winter tires on snow.
Many people drive on all-season tires because they feel they do a good enough job even in winter. Others don’t see the value of the added expense of winter tires. With many of today’s unique tire sizes, it can add up to big buck$ when purchasing winter tires in addition to summer tires. I know, a few years ago it cost me $225 per tire! They paid for themselves that same week though, I was driving fast and straight while everyone else was spinning into the ditch.

But think of it this way: when you go bowling next time – would you use your ski boots or bowling shoes? Why not? Will you be wearing your shorts and a t-shirt on the ski slopes this winter? Why not? You have winter clothes for winter and summer clothes for summer – you dress for the season, and your car needs to be ready for each season it takes you through. For those very fortunate people that live in Hawaii, they only need one set of clothes and one set of tires, but for the rest of us we need to be prepared for changing seasons.Winter Tires Vs. All-seasons Tires, Iain Shankland,

For winter roads, a winter tire is still the best – because believe it or not – your life may depend on it. Don’t look at it as extra cost; look at it as insurance where the “insurance money” stays in your pocket not the insurance company’s. The cost of winter tires is often cheaper than the deductible on your auto insurance. Some insurance companies now give discounts if you change to winter tires. My insurance company gives me a 5% discount.

So you’ve saved let’s say.. $700 this winter, by not buying winter tires. You’re driving around on your “all-season” tires and you hit some ice and slide into the curb. No big deal, you didn’t get hurt but your rim is bent and the right wheel is pointed towards the left. That doesn’t look right! Call the tow truck and you’re off to the tire shop to get it fixed. If you didn’t buy winter tires, let’s also assume you didn’t think it was worth buying CAA either, so you’re out $50- $100 for the tow. A new rim will set you back about $50 if it’s a steel factory installed one. It’ll ding you as much as $1,200 for one of those fancy factory rims. As for the suspension damage, you could go as high as $1,500, depending on how much damage you did. Then you’ll have to rent a vehicle for a least a day, there’s another $75-$100 when you’re done getting soaked for the insurance and fees. Let’s see, you saved $700 but you’re out anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. If you didn’t get winter tires put on after your little curb-hop, you could do this all over again next week!

Buy the winter tires and cheap rims and save yourself a lot of aggravation, time and money. Remember the winter tires will be good for several winters – not just one, so you’ll be spreading the cost over 4 – 6 winters, that’s only around $100 per winter for “insurance” – that’s a no-brainer!

One other thing: don’t buy just 2 winter tires and put them on the drive wheels. Believe it or not, the tire stores are not trying to up-sell you when they say you should purchase 4 new tires. There is a reason for it.

Some drivers install only two winter tires on the drive wheels, thinking that will give them enough traction to get out of a snow bank or up an icy hill, not to mention saving some money. True – winter tires on the drive wheels will improve the vehicle’s chance of getting un-stuck, but a big safety problem arises when using only two winter tires: poor handling. With winter tires on the drive axle and all-season/performance tires on the other axle, the vehicle will tend to become unstable and swap ends under some conditions.

For example, if the vehicle is front-wheel drive (FWD), with two winter tires on the front axle, the back end of the car may try to swap ends with the front during hard braking such as emergency or panic stops. The vehicle spins exactly when you need the most control.

Rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles with winter tires only on the rear axle will tend to “push” or not turn into a corner. Even though the vehicle can accelerate, steering control is compromised, so avoiding an object or another vehicle or pedestrian on the road could be difficult.

Winter tires will also provide superior braking on slippery surfaces, resulting in maintaining control of the vehicle – even if it does have ABS.

Winter Tires Vs. All-seasons Tires, Iain Shankland,

Misconception and hazards associated with purchasing two new tires instead of four. 
Perhaps you’ve got 2 perfectly good tires and 2 that need to be replaced. That’s not unusual, it’s happened to me before. So where do you put the new tires?
If you said: “I’m driving a front-wheel-drive car, so obviously I’d put them on the front.”

If that’s what you were thinking you’d be wrong!

Michelin Test Driver, Mac Demere explains: “The ideal thing is for you to buy four identical tires. That’s the ideal thing. Of course, sometimes you can’t afford to, or for whatever reason you’re only going to buy two new tires. When you do, those new tires go on the rear axle. This is true for front-wheel, rear-wheel, or all-wheel-drive. On every vehicle, if you’re only going to buy two new tires, match the tires that are on your vehicle and put them on the back.”

Why would you put new tires on a FWD vehicle on the back?!

Mac continues: “Steering is nothing without stability. Without the rear stability, all the steering in the world is useless, in fact, it’s counter-productive because what you’re going to do is – if you have the ability to steer but no stability, you’ll spin around. And that’s not something you want to do on the freeway in rush hour.”

As a final piece of advice Mac says: “It relates to winter tires too. If you’re only going to buy two new tires they should go on the rear axle.”

When should you replace tires? 
It depends on tread depth and driving conditions. Tread depth is measured in millimetres, from the surface of the tread to the casing of the tire. You can use a small ruler to measure it, but it is easier and more accurate to use a tread depth gauge. They are relatively inexpensive and available at auto supply stores.

Tires typically have between 11 and 13 mm of tread-depth when new. If you look at the treads you can see raised bands of rubber running across the tire inside the grooves. They are called wear bars and sit 2 mm from the base of the tread. When these bands start to blend across the face of the tread, the tire is worn to 2 mm tread-depth – which is the legal minimum and time to change the tire.

Mud or snow traction requires a deeper tread and certainly a lot more than 2 mm. Some tire manufacturers are building “snow” bands into their winter tire designs, and instead of having a 2-mm minimum tread-depth wear-bar, the snow-bands are about 6 mm from the base of the tread.

Having a tread-depth of less than 6 mm will not provide you with ideal traction on snow or mud. Replace the winter tires at the beginning of snow season. Once they’re worn beyond the 6 mm tread-depth, you can use the tires for wet spring and fall roads, but replace them before the snow flies the following winter.

Keeping two sets of tires – winter and summer/ all-season – for your vehicle sounds like a hassle, not to mention expensive, but remember the tires are all that connect us to the road. You’re basically driving on 4 patches of rubber, each about the size of the palm of your hand. If a good set of tires prevent just one collision, or one injury in one winter, then they’ve paid for themselves many times

Copyright © 2011 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text: Iain Shankland

Images: trendobjects, Toyo

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