Before the first snow falls and temperatures start to drop, it’s always a good idea to prepare your car for winter. That means freshening up your car emergency kit, checking the antifreeze and throwing in that bag of kitty litter in case you need a little extra traction.
And speaking of traction: When was the last time you checked your tires?
As your car’s only touchpoint to the road ahead, having a good set of tires on your vehicle is vital to safe and confident winter driving. Just as any smart person considers their footwear when walking on icy surfaces or trudging through snow and slush, it’s important to evaluate the condition of your car’s tires before winter weather strikes.
If you think your tires aren’t up to the job of winter driving, it may be time to swap them for a set of dedicated snow or winter tires. Here’s what you need to know about how these special-purpose tires work – and why you may want to install them on your car.
How Do Snow Tires Work?
Winter brings with it some of the most difficult driving conditions, including snow, slush, black ice and whiteouts. Unlike regular summer or all-season tires, snow tires are created specifically to excel in harsh winter conditions. These tires typically have a deep tread and feature a special pattern that provides extra grip and traction to avoid slipping.
And while special-purpose snow tires are great at withstanding snow, they’re also better at weathering the cold than standard auto tires. That’s why in recent years “snow tires” have evolved to be known as “winter tires.”
In extremely cold temperatures, a standard tire’s tread rubber can become stiff and lose its flexibility. This reduces the tire’s ability to provide the necessary traction. A winter tire’s rubber formula, on the other hand, allows it to remain flexible – even at the lowest of temperatures. This helps ensure optimal performance in bitterly cold conditions, which is especially helpful when you’re trying to maximize your grip on an icy road.
As with all tire shopping, there are plenty of options to consider. But in the search for winter tires, the tread depth, tread pattern and tire compound are three specific things you’ll want to consider.
Does My Car Need Snow Tires?
If you live in an area where snow and ice are a frequent reality through the winter, snow tires can make driving easier and safer. That’s especially true if you have a steep driveway or often drive on unplowed roads.
But of course, winter tires are not for everyone. If you live in an area where it doesn’t snow very much, or where temperatures don’t often drop into the freezing range, winter tires may not make sense. Those softer rubber compounds mean snow tires can wear out faster in warm weather. And with more aggressive tread patterns, winter tires can be noisier on the road, too.
If you decide not to go with dedicated winter tires (and the required seasonal changeovers), there are plenty of all-season tire options that feature more aggressive tread patterns optimized for winter driving. Just make sure that your tires have enough tread to keep the car on the road (Consumer Reports recommends your tires have a tread depth of at least 4/32 of an inch when driving through snow).
One more factor to consider is your car’s drivetrain. Depending on your vehicle, winter tires might be more beneficial to its performance in snow.
- FWD (Front-Wheel Drive): Heavy snowfall and icy roads sometimes make it harder for a FWD vehicle to be controlled smoothly. This is primarily due to the front half of the vehicle having more traction capability than the rear because the weight of the engine sits over the drive wheels. This design can introduce a tendency to “fishtail,” which is when the rear of the car slides out of control. Adding winter tires will help improve an FWD vehicle’s balance at all four corners in winter conditions.
- AWD (All-Wheel Drive): These vehicles have a definite advantage in winter conditions. But experts still recommend winter tires for drivers living in areas with heavy snowfall because they provide more control on slick surfaces. Winter tires can also improve your AWD vehicle’s ability to stop and corner on icy roads.
- 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive): This drivetrain is typically found in trucks and SUVs. It’s a reliable option for driving in deep snow or areas that don’t get plowed regularly. But braking on ice can remain a challenge because these heavy vehicles add inertia that becomes difficult to stop when roads are slick. As with AWD vehicles, winter tires can come in handy to provide more traction in icy conditions.
- RWD (Rear-Wheel Drive): While the RWD configuration is mostly reserved for pickup trucks and sports cars these days, it’s important to note that this drivetrain style doesn’t typically do well in slippery conditions. That’s because most of the weight of the car is in the front – which means there’s less traction on the drive wheels. This could result in sliding sideways on slippery roads. If you plan to drive an RWD car in winter, it could definitely benefit from a set of snow tires.
Regardless of what’s in your garage, remember that while a car’s drivetrain supplies torque and power – only the tires can provide traction. And that’s what makes all the difference as soon as you hit the brakes.
Do I Need to Change All Four of My Tires?
You may have heard that some drivers only buy two new tires, such as two front tires for a front-wheel drive car. But when driving in the ice and snow, you want all four tires providing equal grip to the road.
Just changing out the front tires can increase the chances that your rear tires will skid. And just putting snow tires on the rear can make it harder to steer when the front tires lose traction. So when it comes time to switch over to winter tires, changing all four tires will give you the best control and stability.
Wondering what else you’ve gotten wrong? Check out this list of 10 debunked winter driving myths.
Are There Any Alternatives to Winter Tires?
If winter tires aren’t what you’re looking for, here are a few different traction options that could help you out in harsh winter weather. Before you invest in any of the options below, it’s important to review the laws in your local area. Some alternatives, such as chains, may be prohibited.
- All-Season Tires: Changing your tires from season to season can be a nuisance. All-season tires offer a bit of a “do-it-all” solution that provides reliable performance in most weather conditions. However, they don’t perform quite as well as winter tires when the weather becomes more severe. That’s because they lack the specific features of winter tires that make them unique: tread rubber, tread depth and patterns, and biting edges.
- Studded Tires: Studded tires are a variation of winter tires that contain a patterned series of tiny pin holes in the tread. These holes can be fitted with lightweight metal studs or pins, making them more adept at gaining traction on ice. Studded tires are a good option in ultra-severe winter regions. However, when the road is clear of snow and ice, the studs can actually cause damage to the road – so they are only permitted in certain states and provinces, and only for designated months. They can also be very loud at higher speeds.
- Tire Chains or Cables: Wrapping metal chains across your tires can provide additional traction, but legality varies widely. Many states have outlawed chains because of the damage they do to roads, while other regions experiencing treacherous snowfall and ice make them mandatory. Either way, tire chains are not recommended for high-speed travel. If you’re considering these easily removable chains, first make sure they are legal in your area. Then make sure you understand their recommended speed limit and whether that limit will work with your driving style.
- Tire Socks: As an alternative to chains, reusable snow socks pull over the wheel like a pillow cover to form a tight fit once they are strapped down. Although not widely used, tire socks get their grip from specially designed textiles – combined with the friction created by the spinning wheel. Snow socks can be purchased to fit most tire sizes, making them a versatile option. But they’re generally not considered a legal equivalent to tire chains in areas where chains are required.
This list represents a range of options that may work for your vehicle. But your best choice for extra winter traction will largely depend on the types of weather conditions you commonly encounter. If you drive in a “blend zone” that experiences an inconsistent mix of winter weather, a trusted tire shop can provide more specific recommendations to help you decide.
When Should I Get Winter Tires?
Ideally, fall is a great time to begin shopping for winter tires. This ensures you can have your tires mounted and ready before the snow starts to fly.
For the best results, consider installing winter tires when the temperature drops to a steady 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. And remember to check your tire pressure at least once a month – because cold weather causes a drop in air pressure.
Protect Your Car When Winter Strikes
The right set of tires can go a long way toward improving your winter driving safety. But in unpredictable weather, even the safest, most experienced drivers can get into an accident. That’s why it’s important to have the right auto insurance to protect you and your vehicle. To learn how Erie Insurance can help you get the right coverage for your needs and budget, contact us today.
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