Getting a Grip in Winter

I was bushwhacked the other day at the home center. A complete stranger came up to me and asked for tire advice while I was pondering in-line electrical switches.

He wanted to know if he needed snow tires, which is a hard question to answer. Will he need snow tires? Could he use snow tires? Would he be better off with snow tires? Should we even call them “snow” tires when the label “winter tires” makes more sense?

For some time, I’ve thought that you can make do with a set of all-season tires with good tread as long as you wait for the plow to make a couple of passes.  If, on the other hand, you drive the plow or head for the ski slopes whenever snow is in the air, a good set of winter tires is a necessity.  They’re also a must if you’re ever caught in an unexpected snow storm.

Just ask the motorists who were stranded for hours when I-84 in western Connecticut came to a halt during an unexpectedly heavy snowstorm in January 2011. Hundreds of motorists were trapped and local fire departments and the Department of Environmental Protection used snowmobiles and ATVs to check on the occupants of these vehicles.

While many cars today have front-, all-, or four-wheel drive, not to mention anti-lock breaking, traction control, and electronic stability, it’s wrong to assume that winter tires have become obsolete.

There are times, even with all-wheel drive and a full complement of electronic traction and stability aids, you’ll need more traction to get going, stop or maintain control. At these times, a good set of winter tires becomes a necessity.

Consider that winter tires are designed to work well over a range of cold weather conditions. It could be snow, ice or just plain cold pavement. New cars delivered with so-called “summer” or “performance” tires are at a major disadvantage when the temperature drops.

When it comes to winter tires, we’re really talking about tires with tread compounds and tread patterns that have been optimized for cold temperatures, snow and ice. The rubber used in the tread is designed to remain flexible as temperatures drop, which pays dividends on all frigid surfaces by allowing the tread to conform to minor changes in the road’s surface. This alone boosts traction.

Tread design, which often includes hundreds of small slits in the tread surface (this is called siping), also plays a role. As the flexible rubber molds itself to the road’s surface, each of those little slits provides an edge that will generate additional traction. Summer and all-season tires have neither the tread compounds that will conform to cold surfaces nor the siping to provide this extra grip.

Numerous published tests have shown winter tires to be markedly superior to summer and all-season tires when driving on snow and ice. They allowed better acceleration times, allowed the car to turn better and the differences in stopping were mind-boggling. Winter tires on slippery cold surfaces were able to stop in half the distance required by summer tires while reducing the stopping distances produced by all season tires by up to 20 percent. That could mean the difference between stopping in time and being involved in a significant crash.

Despite this, winter tires have made up only about three or four percent of the U.S. tire market in recent years, according to Tire Review, a trade publication. In Canada, they represent a third of all tires sold. There are, of course, vast stretches of the United States that never get snow.

Unfortunately, the very characteristics that make winter tires ideal for December through mid-April in New England make them unsuitable for late April through November. If you opt for winter tires, be sure to have a set of summer or all-season tires ready for warmer weather.

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