Richard Spenard with the Michelin X-Ice winter tire
Richard Spenard with the Michelin X-Ice winter tire. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Chris Chase

Richard Spenard wants my dad to buy winter tires.

Actually, he’d like it if everyone did, but he says getting my dad to buy a set would be a good start. My dad’s been driving for many years, but has never felt the need to buy a set of dedicated winter rubber; after all, he’s never been in an accident, so why bother, right?

Wrong, says Spenard, and he should know: he’s one of Canada’s most successful race drivers and even spent part of his career racing on ice. Every year around this time, he travels across the country with Michelin to promote the benefits of winter tires. While it’s partly a promotional tool for the French tire maker, Spenard’s motives are good.

While much of his effort is directed at convincing more Canadians that using winter tires is the way to go, Spenard puts as much work into educating drivers who do use them about when they should be installed.

“Most Canadians changes their tires too late,” he says. “Winter driving isn’t just defined by snow; it’s defined by cold temperatures.”

He adds that while more and more people are realizing that winter tires are necessary in Canada, many only do it because they think the grippier tires will help them avoid getting stuck in snowbanks.

“We recommend changing tires near the end of October,” says Spenard. “Seven degrees Celsius is the temperature where all-season tires (alternately known as three-season or even no-season tires by driving enthusiasts) begin to lose the ability to grip even dry pavement properly. Winter tires are necessary to help maintain your car’s manoeuvrability.”

As Spenard pointed out, modern winter tires use softer rubber compounds that stay flexible even at sub-zero temperatures. This characteristic allows the contact patch to stay in contact with the road (as it should). While changing tires around the time that the kids are deciding what they want to be for Hallowe’en ensures you’ll have your winter rubber on the car in time for cooler temps, Spenard says it will also help you avoid the long line-ups at the tire shops when everyone’s rushing to beat the first snowfall near the end of November. An interesting statistic: November sees more single-vehicle accidents in Canada than any other month. Spenard chalks this up to two things – drivers not using winter tires (or simply not using them early enough) and not adjusting their driving habits to the colder temperatures.

One of the most common arguments that Spenard says he hears against buying winter tires is that it’s too expensive. Sure, with cars coming with ever-larger wheel and tire sizes, it’s a legitimate concern. But he points out that using winter tires for almost half the year means the all-season or performance rubber you run in warmer weather will last longer. He also says that while winter tires for cars with larger standard wheels are pricier, they’re arguably even more necessary on those cars: many of these vehicles come equipped with performance-oriented tires that, even if they’re branded as all-seasons, are really no good in cold weather and are basically useless in ice and snow.

Electronic aids like stability and traction control systems can be useful when driving in tricky winter weather, but Spenard says these techno-goodies are only as good as the tires’ grip of the road.

“These systems only sense traction,” he says. “If the tires have no grip, all the electronics in the world aren’t going to do a thing for you. Also, many who drive SUVs and cars with all-wheel drive feel that they’re invincible in winter. But all-wheel drive doesn’t help braking and may even make for longer braking distances due to the added weight of the extra components needed.”

Spenard says tests conducted by Michelin show that using winter tires can reduce stopping distances on ice by up to 25 per cent. That’s something that we here at Canadian driver can vouch for; several of my colleagues and I participated in Traction 2006, which pitted winter tires against all-seasons on a variety of cars on a closed course. And last winter, Transport Canada held a similar event and recorded the results on video (Spenard’s presentation uses a couple of these short videos).

In the end, Spenard says that the key is educating drivers that winter tires are a necessary safety item in Canada. More organized winter driving instruction would be a huge benefit as well: he says too many drivers simply don’t take winter driving seriously enough. Parents also need to make sure their children, once old enough to take the wheel, realize that driving in winter requires a whole new set of skills compared to fair-weather driving, Spenard says.

I’ve been trying to get my dad to buy winter tires for years now. He hasn’t listened to me yet, but who knows: maybe he’ll listen to Richard Spenard.

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