The first snowfall of the season has already arrived in much of Canada but, even if you haven’t yet encountered the white stuff, the time to install winter tires on your vehicle is now. Overnight temperatures well below +7C are now common across much of the country and that’s the signal to fit winter tires.
As we know from history, the first ‘big one’ could come at any time and winter tires provide superior traction when the temperature drops, even without snow. So there's nothing to be gained by procrastinating and there could be a lot to lose.
Do you really need winter tires?
There are still some people who don't believe they need winter tires, choosing instead to muddle through on all-seasons. It's worked for them in the past, so why change now?
Because you can't beat the odds forever, that's why.
If you're reasoning that you can get away without winter tires because you drive on clear, paved roads most of the time, remember that it is not "most of the time" that you're liable to get it trouble – it is that one exceptional circumstance.
So ask yourself: "Is most of the time good enough? "Your life could depend on your answer.
All-season means three-season
The label “all-season” on tires is a misnomer. They should be called three-season tires, at least here in Canada where the fourth season is real winter.
So-called all-season tires may provide a modest improvement over dedicated summer tires – often described as high-performance tires – in some winter conditions, But they are nowhere near as capable, even in mild winter conditions, as the current generation of winter tires, which can be identified by this mountain-snowflake symbol on their sidewalls.
It's not just in deep snow where the difference becomes apparent. The grip level of an all-season tire, even on a bare road, deteriorates with temperature. Below about 7-degrees Celsius the tire becomes harder, losing its ability to flex and reducing its ability to grip the road surface.
A pure winter tire is compounded to remain flexible over a much lower range of temperatures, well into the minus double-digit range.
Steering and stopping are just as important as going
It’s easy to think of winter tires just in terms of providing traction to accelerate without getting stuck. They do that. But just as important – perhaps more important – they also provide greater traction for cornering and stopping.
On ice, even at parking-lot speeds, winter tires can reduce stopping distances by several metres. Enough to make the difference between a safe stop and a fender-bender, or worse!
At higher speed, the differences may be measured in car lengths. In which case the consequences can go well beyond just some mangled sheet-metal.
Four, not two
The once common practice of installing snow tires on just the driving wheels has been proven not just marginally effective but potentially dangerous – especially on front-wheel-drive vehicles, which account for the vast majority of cars now on the road.
If you turn into a slippery corner too quickly or lift off the accelerator too quickly in a corner with winter tires on just the front wheels of a front-wheel-drive car, the rear wheels are likely to lose lateral traction, initiating a spin.
Remember, as well, that traction is reduced as tires wear. So even if your vehicle is equipped with four winter tires, be sure they're not worn below an effective level.
Whatever the season, be sure to maintain the manufacturer's recommended tire pressures. Riding on underinflated tires not only increases fuel consumption unnecessarily, it may be dangerous.