Tires make a significant difference when winter driving

Tires (Marilyn Newton/RGJ)
Tires (Marilyn Newton/RGJ) /

Tires, those rubber donuts between your vehicle and the road, are important any time of the year, but they take on a whole new level of significance when the snow flies. Every fall those with a set of winter tires keep a close eye on the forecast, trying to get the rubber changed before their cars start sliding through intersections. Then there are the consumers who have the annual debate about purchasing winter tires.

I’m writing this article from the great white north, so I know a little something about driving in the white stuff -all Canadians do. Two provinces, Quebec and British Columbia mandate the use of winter tires, while other jurisdictions consider the legislation on a seemingly annual basis.

While these provinces don’t make it law, they, like some states who are close to the border, do recommend installing winter tires. Having been through more than a few white-knuckle winter driving experiences, and pushing my fair share of vehicles out of the ditch, I recommend the safety upgrade.

Difference from All-Season to Winter Tires

The most common misconception about the importance of winter tires is the tread difference. The tread does offer some traction changes compared to all-seasons, or summers, it’s really the rubber compound that is the critical change.

When the temperature starts holding below 42 degrees Fahrenheit or 7 degrees Celsius the rubber gets hard, and you’re basically a modern version of Fred Flintstone’s ride complete with circler rocks, which are not the best to offer grip.

Back to the big, bulky tread patterns synonymous with winter rubber. The tread is designed to push the water, sleet, slush, and snow away from under the wheels. As you are driving in less than ideal traction conditions, the tires are melting the ice or snow, leaving a small, thin layer of water. So, the loss of traction is much like hydroplaning when you hit a puddle while driving too fast.

For those who really care, the little grooves inside the bulky treads are called sipes, these small indents work to disperse water away from areas that need to be in contact with the road. Technology is changing all the time, there are also small ridges being added to assist in the performance as well. Take a look at this video from Bridgestone to see how it works.

The tire experts recommend installing more narrow tires for winter compared to what you ride on the rest of the year. Less width allows more pressure directly beneath the wheel which allows for the tires to slice through and move all that slippery stuff from under it.

Price of Tires Matters

Finally, you get what you pay for, and tires are no different. The people who sell the rubber say the more expensive tire, the better performance, better durability and less road noise you will get. Talk to your local tire professional and keep an eye out for deals. I’ve also discovered you can find lots of tires in the aftermarket.

There is nothing worse than old rubber donuts taking up space in the garage. When people sell the car in the summer, they forget about the winter tires, therefore there are lots of deals to be had, but be sure to check the wear and overall condition before buying.

The Flintstone’s car rode on rocks and seemed to have no problem handling, however, if you don’t want to slam your feet through the floorboard to stop, then installing tires that stay softer in colder temperatures, work to keep contact with the road and slice through debris, then winter tires are the way to go.