Winter is fast approaching here in the Pacific Northwest, and like many other northern portions of the United States, that means inclement weather is fast approaching. In many areas, the winter months are characterized by cold temperatures and the occasional snow storm. And in certain parts of the country, the snow and ice comes fast and furious.
There are a number of factors to consider when making your plans for winter driving. Depending on the usual weather in your area this winter, you might be considering snow tires. If you think you will be regularly driving in icy, snowy conditions, snow tires are probably your best bet. If your area’s winter is a bit milder, with only a few light, scattered snowstorms – then you might try to get away with all-season tires. But these tires do not perform as well as snow tires in conditions of heavy snow and slush.
Tires may be the most important part of your vehicle from a safety point-of-view, particularly when conditions are less than ideal. Without adequate tire grip, many important vehicle safety features are rendered useless, such as antilock brakes, all-wheel-drive and electronic stability controls.
What exactly are snow tires? Well, they are tires specifically designed with tread patterns that grab ahold of the snow and ice. Snow tires are also manufactured with a special compound that enables them to be more flexible than normal tires under cold conditions. These factors combine to improve grip and handling when stopping and steering when the road is slick.
All-weather tires are designed for a variety of conditions, including dry and wet roads. Compared to snow tires, all-season tires don’t perform as well in extremely cold environments, nor do they have as good a tread when it comes to particularly slippery conditions.
The benefit of all-season tires versus snow tires is that you don’t need to swap them out as the seasons change, because snow tires are not really designed to be used year-round. If you try to use snow tires in the summer, they will wear out very fast, rendering them less effective come winter.
The downside of all-season tires is that, while it is convenient to have one set of tires on your vehicle all year, these tires aren’t really optimal for any particular season, only adequate. Though you have to buy two sets of tires, you will get better performance year-round, if you go with a snow tire in the winter, and regular tire in the summer that will afford you a smoother, quieter ride.
Other factors to consider when purchasing snow tires include:
If you are going to be making a lot of trips over very icy roads, you might consider installing “studs” on your snow tires, which are sturdy metal points inserted into the tread to give the tire an even better bite of the road. In most areas with harsh winters, studded snow tires are legal and available (though you should double check this). Studded snow tires MUST be removed at the end of winter, however, or you will be in violation of most local laws, as studded tires can be hard on the road during non-winter conditions.
If you are going to take the plunge and get snow tires, you must get a complete set. Buying only front or rear snow tires is a bad idea that will defeat the entire purpose of snow tires. If snow tires are on the drive axel of the vehicle, but not on the other, it results in unequal grip that will increase spin outs and slide offs.
Snow tires aren’t going to eliminate skidding on ice and snow, but they can reduce the risk. Naturally, you are going to want to drive according to the conditions, and slow down and drive defensively when the conditions are particularly harsh.
Just because you have a 4×4 or all-wheel drive vehicle, doesn’t mean you don’t need snow tires. In fact, driving an SUV or other four-wheel drive vehicle in the winter without proper tires can be even more dangerous, because the 4WD gives drivers a false sense of security. Without winter tires, heavy 4WD vehicles have a very difficult time stopping.
There has been much advancement in snow tire technology in recent years. Once, snow tires were terribly loud and led to a bumpier ride. These newer compounds are much quieter and smoother than the snow tires of a couple decades ago, while being just as effective in achieving acceleration and braking in snow and ice.
When you get your snow tires installed and begin driving in adverse conditions, take extra time to getting a feel for the new handling traits. The traction characteristics will be much different than your normal tires, so caution should be taken to ensure that you are familiar with the new tires.
It’s best not to wait until the conditions are already icy and snowy to install new snow tires. Like all tires, snow tires are comprised of multiple layers of various compounds and thus require a break-in period before maximum performance is achieved. It is best if you put about 100 miles on your snow tires on dry roads, so as to get the most out of them when on snow and ice.