A generation of drivers has grown up believing snow tires are relics, but they’re wrong.
The cleverly named all-season tires that have largely replaced snow tires don’t provide nearly the security, safety and control of a good set of snow - or winter - tires when the snow flies and temperatures fall.
If you live more than a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the mountains or just about anywhere winter temperatures regularly stay below freezing, you should at least think about snow tires.
I got a double-barreled reminder recently at Michigan Technological University’s Keweenaw Research Center near Houghton, Mich. First, sliding between walls of snow with a professional driver testing Michelin winter tires, then as I wished for more traction for braking and steering during the 540-mile drive back to Detroit the next day.
The difference is dramatic. On the fresh, slippery snow cover, we compared the results of various maneuvers in a set of snow tires versus a high-quality set of all-season tires. The snow tires were one second faster accelerating from 5 to 20 mph.
They were a half-second quicker slowing down to 5 mph, and an amazing 13 seconds faster around a 1.2-mile stretch of private road.
A scoreboard in the research center’s garage tallied how many times each driver - and one FedEx truck making a delivery - slid off the road and got stuck.
In the real world of public roads, oncoming traffic and the mistakes we all make, the numbers from Michelin’s tests add up to a bigger margin for error. Snow tires provide confidence you won’t slip off the road, that your brakes will keep you from sliding into the next car’s bumper at the stop sign, and that you have the traction to pull into traffic or cross a busy intersection safely.
Snow tire prices range from as low as $80 to more than $200 apiece, said Chris Lynch, owner of Wetmore’s, a Ferndale, Mich., service shop that has specialized in tires since 1928. To minimize winter damage to fancy aluminum wheels and avoid charges for remounting and balancing their tires twice a year, most owners buy basic steel wheels for another $200 to $300 a set.
Lynch stores tires in the off-season and swaps them in the spring and winter at no charge for Wetmore’s customers.
He figures a set of snow tires will last three or four years. They also extend the life of the customer’s other tires by reducing mileage on them.
"It costs money, but what’s the value of avoiding an accident?" asked Ron Margadona, Michelin senior technical marketing manager. "People need to know that tires improve their mobility and safety."
They do that two ways. Carefully designed tread features grabby nooks and crannies to dig into snow and loose ice. The chemistry of the tires - they’re way more than simple rubber these days - is tailored to winter conditions. Winter tires stay flexible and cling to the surface of the road at temperatures that cause other tires to lose their grip.
All-season tires have been common for about 35 years. They’ve got some grip at all temperatures, but they can’t match the road-hugging ability of a tire designed specifically either for warm temperatures or winter conditions.
"All-season tires are a compromise," Margadona said. "Winter tires are designed to keep you mobile and safe in the cold months."
Wetmore’s used to have hundreds of customers who changed tires with the seasons, Lynch said. Today, that’s down to a few dozen, mostly owners of luxury and performance cars.
The advent of front- and all-wheel-drive cars added to the shift away from specialized tires. Both offer more grip - particularly for getting started - on slippery surfaces. Winter tires improve their road holding, braking and performance markedly, however.
Winter tires are legally required in much of Europe and Quebec. It’s up to each driver in America, though in some states, the highway patrol won’t even let you enter some mountain roads without them in the winter.
"We suggest you switch to winter tires whenever you start to see your breath in the fall. That’s generally between Halloween and Easter in mountainous areas and the Snow Belt states," said Mark Cox, director of Bridgestone’s winter driving school in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
-Get a grip. To have adequate snow traction, a tire requires at least 6/32-inch deep tread, according to the Tire Rack, an online tire retailer. (New passenger-car tires usually have 10/32-inch of tread.) Even all-season tires don’t necessarily have
great snow traction.
-Make sure you can see. Replace windshield wiper blades. Clean the inside of your windows thoroughly. Apply a water-shedding material (such as Rain-X) to the outside of all windows, including the mirrors.
-Run the air-conditioner. In order to remove condensation and frost from the interior of windows, engage your air-conditioner and select the fresh-air option.
-Check your lights. Clear snow from headlights and taillights.
-Learn how to get maximum efficiency from your brakes before an emergency. It’s easy to properly use antilock brakes: Stomp, stay and steer.
-Watch for black ice or glare ice. If the road looks slick, it probably is.
-Remember the tough spots. Bridges and intersections are common places. Also: wherever water runs across the road.
-Too much steering is bad. If a slick section in a turn causes your front tires to lose grip, the common - but incorrect - reaction is to continue turning the steering wheel. It won’t improve the situation and may make things worse.