Many Canadians already have encountered the fister snowfall of the season, but even if you have not, the time to install winter tires on your vehicle is now. Overnight temperatures are falling well below 7-degrees Celsius in much of the country and that, not just snowfall, is the signal to get your vehicle ready for winter.
The first ‘big one’ could come anytime and winter tires provide superior traction when the temperature drops, even without snow, so there's no good reason to delay the inevitable. There's nothing to be gained by waiting for winter to arrive in full fury and potentially a lot to lose.
Do you really need winter tires?
There are still some people who don't accept the necessity of winter tires, opting instead to muddle through the winter 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 still thinking you can get away without winter tires because you drive on well-plowed, paved roads most of the time, consider that it is not "most of the time" that you're likely to find yourself in trouble. It is the exceptional circumstance you must be prepared for. So ask yourself this question: "Is most of the time good enough?" Your life may depend on your answer.
All-season tires aren't
What many people may not realize is that an all-season tire is really a misnomer. It should be called a three-season tire, at least here in Canada where that fourth season is real winter.
For sure, all-season tires are superior to dedicated summer tires – often designated as high-performance tires – in winter conditions. They compromise some outright performance capability in spring-summer-fall conditions to gain that modest winter improvement.
But they are nowhere near as capable in even mild winter conditions as the current generation of winter tires, designated by a mountain-snowflake symbol on their sidewalls.
Temperature makes a difference
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. At temperatures below about 7-degrees Celsius the tire becomes harder, losing its ability to flex and thus 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 as important as going
We tend to think of winter tires as providing greater traction for accelerating without getting stuck, which they do. But just as important – probably more important – is the fact that they provide greater traction for cornering and for 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. 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 to be not only marginally effective but potentially dangerous – especially on front-wheel-drive vehicles, which account for the vast majority of cars now on the road.
Turn into a slippery corner too quickly or lift off the accelerator too quickly in a corner, with winter tires on only the front wheels of a front-wheel-drive car, and the chances are high that the rear wheels will lose lateral traction, initiating a spin.
Keep in mind also that traction is reduced as a tire wears. So even if your vehicle is equipped with four winter tires, be sure they're not worn below an effective level.
And whatever the season, maintain the manufacturer's recommended tire pressures. Riding on under-inflated tires not only increases fuel consumption unnecessarily, doing so is potentially dangerous