Photo by Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

By Jim Kerr

The snow has finally arrived in my area (Saskatoon) and it came with a vengeance. Hundreds of accidents occurred as drivers were slow to react to the new driving conditions. To be fair, the roads were, and still are, extremely slippery in places. Driving in winter takes a change in mindset and driving techniques, and there are a couple things to do to your vehicle to make it even better.

Start by installing winter tires. If you have waited till the snow is here, you will probably have to deal with a wait to get them installed. More and more drivers are using winter tires and some places, like Quebec, have even made them mandatory during the winter months.

The best time to change to winter tires is long before the snow flies. According to the tire manufacturers, when temperatures drop below 7 degrees Celsius, winter tires will provide better traction than all-season tires. Almost all vehicles come from the factory with all-season tires, although there are a few sports cars that are equipped with performance tires. Performance tires are almost useless when there is snow or ice on the ground, but even a high-powered performance car can be driven comfortably through winter if equipped with winter tires. All-season tires really should be called “three season” tires. They provide good traction and wear characteristics when temperatures are warmer but any driver who has experienced the traction of winter tires will never want to go back to driving on all-season tires when the temperatures drop.

Winter tires, regardless of manufacturer, have several characteristics that enable them to provide improved traction. The tread pattern usually has large blocks with wide, irregularly-shaped grooves between them to grip loose snow and mud. Each tread block also has many small “sipes” or cuts in each tread block that provide thousands of gripping edges on icy roads. Even more important, these sipes allow water to be squeezed away from between the rubber and ice. Water on ice is much more slippery than just dry ice, so removing the water aids traction dramatically.

Rubber compounding is another change found in winter tires. The actual formulas for the rubber compounds are closely guarded secrets of the tire manufacturers and even they will admit it is somewhat of a “black art”; keep mixing compounds ‘til suddenly something works. Common ingredients in the rubber mix include carbon black, silica, polymers, binders, plasticizers and even clay. Some like silica are added in nano-particle size and help the rubber grip ice. Other ingredients help keep the tire flexible at colder temperatures so the tread can conform to the shape of the road.

Drivers who have switched from low profile tires to winter tires may find the vehicle feels a little less crisp in its steering responses. This is because the tread blocks have more flex, so it takes a fraction of a second for the car to respond to steering inputs. This isn’t a safety issue, as the tire has excellent grip; it just feels slightly different.

Some are concerned about driving with winter tires on the highway or on days when the weather is warmer. Winter tires have to meet all the same safety standards as all season tires for load and heat, so they are safe to drive on even on hot summer days. They will tend to wear faster when driven under these conditions, so it is recommended to change back to the all-season or performance tires for summer driving, but for drivers heading to the southern states in the winter, I would still recommend keeping the winter tires on. In all but the most southern of the states, ice and snow are still common enough and temperatures low enough to warrant the use of winter tires. They will add peace of mind driving to your winter holiday.

One final note: correct four-wheel alignment will help keep the vehicle stable on icy roads. Rear tires that are in the “toe-out” position may track fine on dry pavement but can quickly spin a vehicle on icy roads, especially when you are stepping on the brakes and putting more load on the front tires. A wheel alignment is part of preventative maintenance and can make driving safer.

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