Winter tires are a basic safety issue in snow and ice

Winter tires added control to allow us to navigate through the test area with minimal traction loss.

For those of us who actually have a real need for winter tires most rationalize with reasons for not spending the effort, energy and the money to outfit your vehicles with a set of real honest to goodness winter tires. Many of us talk ourselves into believing if our car is equipped with tires emblazoned with an all-season designation on the sidewall we are set for any weather condition. You will be surprised that isn’t the case when the snowflakes start to fall.

If you live in the Snow Belt or even the fringes of the Snow Belt you really should consider purchasing winter tires. After all aren’t you and your family’s lives worth the few hundreds of dollars winter tires might cost? That is the gamble you could be taking.

Some tire basics of what 80% of new cars come equipped, the all-season tire, were explained to us by the folks at Tire Rack, a prominent internet tire retailer. Normal rubber compounds harden in cold temperatures, reducing grip. All-season tread patterns are focused toward displacing water and gripping pavement, not gripping snow and ice. While all-season tires are wonderful all-round choices, they are not the best for snow and ice.

Winter tire treads are designed to displace snow, but also have inner grip patterns providing traction in deeper snow.

Winter tire treads are designed to displace snow, but also have inner grip patterns providing traction in deeper snow.

We have known the value of winter tires for sometime ourselves, having driven on ice and snow for years, testing a variety of vehicles from sport sedans to SUVs and trucks in the upper reaches of Montana to the ice-laden roads of Iceland. However, it came home abruptly as we ventured to West Yellowstone to test winter tires with Continental Tires.
Obviously, Continental tires wanted us to experience prowess of their new Winter Extreme winter tire, which we did. We came away from this test quite impressed at the engineering that goes into Continental tires, in fact, all tires. We also departed Montana with a new appreciation for winter tires in general and how, in snowy and icy conditions, superior they are in keeping our vehicles out of harm’s way.

Our first test was an acceleration and moderate emergency lane change with identical front-wheel drive family sedans each equipped with a different tire set up. One had a popular all season tire at all four wheels. The second had all-season tires on the rear and winter tires on the front. More on this popular, but not so useful configuration later. Our third test vehicles had Continental Winter Extreme at all four corners.

The results of this exercise were as expected with the vehicle with four all-season tires. It could barely get out of the parking spot and nearly didn’t stop sliding on braking. The one outfitted with winter tires accelerated from a stop evenly and came to a stop well in the shortest distance. By far, the winter tires were the most adept at keeping us within the confines of the coned test track. A number of tests have determined that winter tires stop in 21% shorter distance than all-season tires. That is significant when it could be the difference in smashing into a tree, another vehicle or stopping with a few feet to spare.

The real surprise came from the mix and match set up. We have probably all heard the old tale; put the best or newest tires on

Driving a higher threshold test demonstrated the need for slow and steady driver inputs to keep the vehicle on the road.

Driving a higher threshold test demonstrated the need for slow and steady driver inputs to keep the vehicle on the road.

the front axle because you would much rather have the ability to steer your vehicle and let the rear do what it will. That might have been the case years ago when flat tires were a normal occurrence. However, today flats are a rarity and it is far more important to have traction on the rear of your vehicle. The reason for this is rather simple, if the rear tires lose traction in nearly every circumstance the vehicle will most certainly go into what is called an over-steer situation. In the best of terms you are going to slide sideways and if it is during more drastic circumstances, you are going to spin. Not a good thing. You may think you are able to steer the vehicle even though the front tires do have better grip on the surface, however that means nothing if the rear is back there flopping side to side like a giant fish out of water. You’ll have just as much control of your car as you do with that fish. To the point, install good tires on all four wheels, a scenario that is even more important when installing winter tires, the amount of control goes up exponentially

.We want to make one major point here; Any time the weather turns inclement reducing your speed is the one major element in maintaining control. Lowering you speed when things get a little wintery out there is the number one advantage you have over the situation. There is a saying we use in auto racing; you can’t out drive physics. You may have the very best prepared vehicle and the newest and best tires money can buy, however if a vehicle weighing X goes into a situation X with more velocity than physics will allow, all the best equipment in the world is not going to stop the disaster that is about to happen. It just isn’t going to end up well.

Even big brawny trucks need the extra grip winter tires provide over all-terrain tires.

Even big brawny trucks need the extra grip winter tires provide over all-terrain tires.

Granted much of the country has no understanding why anyone would need winter tires, but looking at the recent bad weather we have seen across the country there are many who understand. Those folks are the ones who will benefit from the extensive research and development going into winter tires. Actually we all do indirectly. What tire manufacturers learn from winter tire development they take into development for all tires. Some principles are used while others are not, but we do know that all tires are getting better at handling the rigors we place on them, and that spells safer driving for all of us.