Are Winter Tires Worth It?

This is a debate that occurs every winter. Drivers always question the need for winter tires. Especially in a big city like Toronto.

There's always a few excuses to not use winter tires from this crowd.

  • The snow is not that bad in Toronto.
  • The plows always clear the roads before the commute.
  • I've never had a problem with my all-season tires.

If you're one of these people, I just want to say that you're wrong. Unequivocally.

Sure the snow isn't that bad 90% of the time. However, for the other 10%, these are the days when the snow will be too much. As we've seen the past two winters, sometimes when the snow gets heavy, the conditions for driving are really bad.

Two winters ago, I remember we were let out of work early. On my way home, I saw a snow plow stuck in a snow bank. These are the same plows with the bigger wheels and travel at slower speeds. If a snow plow can lose traction and get stuck in a snow bank, what chance does your car have?

Last winter, I saw a car attempt to leave our street for 15 minutes before finally being successful. The snow wasn't that thick. It was only a few centimetres. However, the side streets were often neglected during the ice storm and subsequent snow falls last winter. As such, there was a layer of ice a few centimetres thick on the roadway that prevented this car from turning onto the bigger side street. Finally, it backed off far enough, gained enough traction and momentum to navigate the layer of ice. Never mind the amount of gas this driver burned through to get out of our side street... this was extremely dangerous as this car ran a stop sign.

Of course, with my winter tires, I was able to gain the traction without a 50 metre head start and at a safe and comfortable (for the conditions) speed.

So how are winter tires better than all season tires?

I'm no tire expert, but I believe this is the science behind it.

First off, tires are no good if they are too soft or too stiff. There's a Goldilocks range for tires. However, this changes based on temperature. Your all seasons are great for the summer. However, during the winter, the tires are too stiff to be of any use. This is because tires have better grip the softer they are. This is why winter tires are recommended. Despite the harsh winters, winter tires are able to stay soft thus giving you better grip.

The opposite is also true. It's better to switch our your winter tires in the spring/summer as your tires will be too soft. While grip isn't the issue here, because the tires are much softer than all season tires, you'll wear down the tires faster.

How do winter tires work? Aside from giving you better grip because they are softer than all seasons.

Well, if you've ever looked at the tread of winter tires, you've probably noticed more lines and threads on the tread in addition to the deeper tread.
Lots of lines on the tread.
These lines allow for water to channel away from between the tire and the roadway. You might be asking yourself, What water? If it's below freezing, there will be no water on the road.

This is where science comes in. Apparently, despite the freezing temperatures, as the tire makes contact with the road, it melts the snow. I'm guessing it's friction or something. Anyway, without winter tires, this can cause a situation known as hydroplaning.

In short hydroplaning occurs when a layer of water is between your tires and the roadway causing you to lose grip and slide or skid out of control.

The little threads on winter tires allow for safe displacement of water out the sides of the tire.

No amount of lines on a winter tire will help you if there is a layer of snow on the ground. For that, we have the deeper tread on the winter tires to help in that regard.

So when is the best time to switch to winter tire? There isn't a set time or date. Although in some provinces in Canada, it's the law to switch to winter tires by a certain date. I follow the 7°C rule. When temperatures are consistently hovering around the 7°C mark, this is the time to switch to winter tires. I already changed to winter tire last week.

Just don't wait for the meteorologists to say the F-word on TV... (flurries, what did you think I meant?). If you wait that long, you may be too late.

So what other reasons are there to switch to winter tires?

How about cheaper insurance? There are some insurance companies that give you a 5-10% discount if you use winter tires. If you're in Ontario, that 5% is a decent amount of money.

How about cheaper insurance? You're less likely to get into an accident on winter tires. No accidents means your rates don't skyrocket too high*.

Did I mention the cheaper insurance? Yeah, insurance costs are too high in Ontario.

Winter tires are great. However, there's one more thing I need to point out. Winter tires won't do you any good if you're driving too fast for the conditions. I've seen plenty of cars with winter tires** skid out and crash into light standards, stop signs, and other cars just because they thought they were Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder.

So are winter tires worth it? I'd say yes!

*If you're living in Ontario, they're going to skyrocket anyway.

**I think most of these cars were equipped with winter tires. One telltale sign is that most people keep the hubcaps off when they switch to winter tires and then put them back on when they switch back to all season tires.


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