Imagine you’re driving just below the speed limit, 80 km/hr, on a two-lane highway on route to work. There’s a thin layer of snow on the road and temperatures are hovering above zero. Just after rounding a curve, you spot a car 50 meters ahead that just turned into your lane from a driveway, but is barely moving as the car tries to get traction on a slushy section of road. You brake to avoid rear-ending the vehicle, but your all-season tires can’t get traction and you lose control and cross into the lane of oncoming traffic. This is a not inconceivable scenario but would likely be avoided with winter tires coupled with a proper braking technique.
Many of us think we can get through the winter just as safely with all-season tires or new tires that still have a good tread. However, the truth is, tires that perform well in hot temperatures don’t provide good traction in winter because they tend to harden when the temperature dips below 7 degrees Centigrade. All-season tires suffer from the same problem and the tread-compound used in these tires provides poor traction in very cold weather. During major snowstorms, based on Canadian collision reporting statistics , the vast majority of vehicles who crashed did not have winter tires.
According to the Traffic Research Foundation, winter tires consistently outperform regular and all-season tires at braking and cornering. There are several characteristics of winter tires that contribute to their traction during winter conditions. They’re made of a soft rubber material which remains flexible in cold weather and provides more controlled handling. Winter tires have deep slips in their treads and sharper edges that dig into the snow, which provides grip and helps prevent hydroplaning on slushy roads. They also have specialized tread and wider groves which channel away water and snow, and provide better traction on ice and snow. As a result of these attributes, winter tires provide about 25 to 50 percent higher traction than regular all-season tires.
We know that good traction is critical when you need to stop and steer in poor road conditions. Traction is also key when we need to respond safely during unexpected traffic conditions, such as stopped traffic. Many Canadians think they don’t really need winter tires when they only drive in the city or can choose to stay home during poor driving conditions, such as might apply in you’re retired or work from home. However, this is a misconception since winter tires perform better when it’s cold even when the roads are bare. Also, most of us drive out of town at some point during the winter, or we may find that weather unexpectedly turned worse before we need to head home. In any such situation, winter tires might be a life saver.
Winter tires have been mandatory in Quebec and Germany for many years. Both places experienced a reduction in motor vehicle accidents, serious injuries and deaths after winter tires became the law. In Quebec, for example, there was a 5 to 18 per cent decrease in winter collisions (depending on which source you read) after winter tires were legislated. And, this decrease resulted from only a small percentage of additional vehicles being equipped with winter tires, since 96 per cent of drivers were already using winter tires prior to the change. In Germany, personal injury collisions decreased around 50 per cent in 2008 after winter tires became mandatory (compared to 2005 accident statistics). Although improvements in car safety likely contributed in part to this huge drop in car accidents in Germany, it still represents a staggering reduction and underscores the substantial benefit of installing winter tires.
Although winter tires aren’t legally required in Ontario, you qualify for a 5 per cent discount on your car insurance if you have winter tires installed on your vehicle. But don’t forget that you must inform your insurer that your vehicle has winter tires, and perhaps show proof of purchase, before they will give you the discount. Another benefit to Ontario drivers is the fact that winter tires provide about 5 per cent better fuel economy as well. So, the argument for winter tires goes beyond safety and the reduced risk of personal injury which are, in themselves, sufficient reason. Particularly when you consider the cost of an accident, higher insurance rates and your personal liability if someone becomes injured because you were unable to stop in time.