Winter tyres – an unnecessary expense or an essential part of the winter driving tool kit?
Now I know that it seems like only yesterday that I was writing about the hot weather and the effects of dehydration on your driving ability, but to coin a phrase from a popular TV programme – winter is coming. And that means you may want to consider purchasing a set of winter tyres. But, first things first. Before we get into winter tyre safety it’s a good idea to cover some simple winter safety checks.
Winter Safety Checks for your car
- Ensuring your radiator is stocked with antifreeze is a good place to start, as is a quick check of the battery to make sure the connections are not corroding and that it’s still maintaining its charge.
- Test your lights to make sure they all work properly, not forgetting your indicators and fog lights.
- Make sure your windscreen wipers are in good condition. You can do this by lifting them away from the screen and running your finger gently down each side of the blade. If you find any nicks or cracks, it would be a good idea to get them changed.
- Ensure you have plenty of screen wash. The change in weather conditions has a significant impact on the spray or road debris, as it is sometimes called, kicked up by the tyres. It’s not just the volume of spray that causes a risk, but also its consistency. Seasonal conditions tend to increase the amount of mud and other sediment on the road surface and this will inevitably end up on your screen at some point. In icy conditions, there’s the added complication of salt on the road which you’ll find quickly paints a layer of white powder on your screen. If you find yourself on a road trip in winter without sufficient screen wash, you could be putting yourself at serious risk.
The most important winter check
Perhaps the most important check of all is to check your tyres. The law requires car tyres to have a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm in a continuous band around the central three-quarters of the tyre.
Now if you have the minimum tread depth, that’s all well and good from a legal perspective, but does it actually clear you from a risk perspective too? Perhaps not. Remember, with the advent of autumn and winter comes lower temperatures and wetter conditions.
If you’re a fan of Formula 1 like me, you’ll have seen drivers at different tracks complaining about not being able to get heat into their tyres. You see a warmer tyre is a softer tyre and a softer tyre typically has better grip – at least up to a certain point. Formula 1 tyres have a very restricted set of conditions in which they operate well. Air and track temperatures heavily influence their performance and outside of the optimum temperature range, their ability to grip when cornering, accelerating or decelerating greatly decreases.
A lesser-known fact possibly, is that road tyres also have an optimum temperature range. Summer tyres, which are the tyres that most drivers in the UK drive on all year round, work at their best above 7 degrees Celsius. Get below that and the compound becomes too hard to deliver an optimum grip experience and that means, if you like to exploit the grip of the tyre when braking or cornering, you could very quickly find yourself in a spot of trouble.
As you’ll see from the video below, even if you are a very conscientious driver, driving well within the limits of your capability, stopping distances will vary significantly on a wet road in cold weather between traditional summer tyres and their winter alternatives. This is before you take ice and snow conditions into consideration.
You may be thinking then, why don’t we just put winter tyres on all year round?
Surely if they’ve got a better grip in tricky conditions, they’re the best tyre choice 365 days of the year. However, that’s not the case. For those of you clicked on the video link above, you’ll have seen that in warm conditions, traditional summer tyres outperform their winter counterparts. Why? It all comes down to the optimum operating temperature once again. Winter tyres are designed to be nice and soft below 7 degrees Celsius. Above this temperature, they become too soft resulting in greater molecular movement within the tyre material, which in turn creates instability, poor grip and greater wear.
An obvious question then, is why not mix the compounds from the two different tyres and create an ultra-effective, all-round tyre? Well, you can actually buy all-season or all-weather tyres. Michelin’s CrossClimate range is a good example which many experts agree, delivers grip levels comparable to summer tyres in the warm and winter tyres in the cold. There’s still some way to go for them to completely match the performance of season-specific tyres but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. For many other brands, however, the all-weather tyres appear to be a “jack of all trades and master of none”, delivering poorer grip levels than both winter tyres in winter and summer tyres in summer.
So what are the alternatives if you don’t want to invest in two sets of tyres? Well, “snow socks” (for your tyres) and snow chains both provide increased grip in snowy conditions, but aren’t any good on an ordinary road in cold weather which is when you need the extra grip most often.
My advice then is to bite the bullet and invest in some winter tyres. Give it a just a couple more weeks and you’ll see offers popping up from many of the major tyre suppliers like Kwik Fit and National. And don’t forget, you don’t need to throw away your summer tyres if they’re still in good condition. Simply store them away for the winter. When the weather improves in early spring, change the tyres back again and put your winter tyres in storage for the next 8 months. Then you won’t have the added expense of buying winter tyres again next year.
One last thing to mention around tyres is that if you are planning on going on holiday abroad this winter and you’re taking your car, it’s worth checking the laws in that country with regards to tyre choice. In countries like Finland, Sweden, Germany and Austria you are legally obliged to have winter tyres on your car between specific points of the year. In many other countries such as France, Italy and Spain there are regional variations and you’ll need to take advice before you set off or risk a hefty fine.