Of Canada’s provinces and territories, only British Columbia and Quebec require that every vehicle must be equipped with winter tires in colder months. So if you live elsewhere, why bother?
We investigated the matter with Automotive Services Technician instructor Darren Jones (Automotive Services Technician ’91). Considering that the average Edmonton winter dumps well over a metre of snow on the city, some might say we’d do well to take a lesson from the easterners.
And some might say we’d do well enough to learn everything we need to know about winter tires from Jones – including how to check tread wear – even if our capricious seasons can make that a complicated subject.
What winter tires do
"The most important benefit of winter tires is stopping distance," says Jones. He illustrates with a comparison from tirerack.com, one of his go-to sites for tire reviews and information. A vehicle travelling 50 kilometers per hour on all-seasons requires 27 metres to make a sudden stop in winter conditions. On winter tires, that distance is shortened to 18 metres.
How winter tires work
At least for prairie climates, all-season tires are misleadingly named. With winter tires, Jones explains, “the rubber is designed to be softer at colder temperatures to get a better grip." The tread is enhanced to improve safety and performance on snow or ice or both.
Why you need four
There was a time when drivers thought two winter tires on the drive wheels were sufficient for traction on snowy roads. That time is over. You can save a few hundred dollars this way, “but then you’re losing your steering on the front,” says Jones. Braking is also diminished.
How to choose a winter tire
Install winter tires that are the same size as your all-seasons so your speedometer, anti-lock brakes and other systems continue to work properly.
Prices vary widely, but better quality, and likely more expensive, tires tend to have longer tread life. All tires that meet Transport Canada’s standards will be marked with a picture of a snowflake in a mountain (right).
To make sure tires meet your standards, buy for your driving conditions. Will you most often travel icy city streets or snowy country roads, or a little of both? There are tires designed for either condition or, so to speak, the middle of the road, if you tend to get around.
When to put them on
“It’s not so much about when it snows, as about temperature,” explains Jones. The pivot point is about 7 C. Above that, winter tires wear quickly on bare pavement; below 7 C, they grip with tenacity that all-season tires, which harden in the cold, cannot.
If your tires are on their own rims, and “if you have mechanical aptitude good enough to change a spare tire, you should be able to put on your own winter tires,” says Jones. That means no more waiting until Christmas for an opening at the auto shop. Inflate to the same pressure as your all-seasons, and to the level indicated inside your driver-side door.
Replace and repeat
Because they are made of softer rubber, winter tires wear quicker than all-seasons. “Probably you’ll be good for 30,000 to 50,000 kilometres on a set,” says Jones. That’s two to four winters. Check the tread regularly.
To get the most from your winter tires, follow Jones’s advice – not just in the winter, but in Alberta’s on-again, off-again spring, too. “You don’t want to take them off too soon because it can snow again, but you don’t want to wait too long. It's a Catch 22.”