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The British Winter Tyre Conundrum

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Here in Britain we’re obsessed with the weather. Many find this puzzling since Britain has a pretty mild climate: not very hot in the Summer, not very cold in the Winter and not very exciting in between. We don’t get monsoons. No tornadoes (other that the sort that are so small they wouldn’t get a mention on a Texas weather report). No metres of snow in the Winter. No Summers where you can boil an egg on a road. It gets a bit windy, a bit sunny, snows for a few days in he Winter and pretty much rains for all time in between.

However during most Winters there is a period of a week or two when the country comes to a complete standstill. A mere inch of snow is enough to block all the motorway, leave people stranded in their cars in the night and cause countless crashes. Yet, while the average temperature between November and March stays below 7C, it rarely dips into double negative digits. And if there’s a grand total of a foot or snow over the Winter period then that’s considered a “bad” Winter (such as this one). Countries such as Germany never have these problem. So what’s going on?

The difference is Winter tyres. In a lot of European countries if you crash in Winter with Summer tyres fitted your insurance is declared void. So when the temperature dips below 7C people swap their Summer tyres over to Winter ones and swap them back when temperatures rise above 7C the following Spring.

Brits tend not to buy Winter tyres for two main reasons:

  • There isn’t enough snow and ice to justify them
  • Cost – the fact is motoring in the UK is expensive enough

However after doing some research it’s easy to argue that those two above points are invalid and you’d be crazy not to. Firstly the snow issue. Contrary to popular (in the UK) belief, Winter tyres do not have spikes on them. They differ from Summer tyres in two distinct ways: different rubber and different tread. The rubber in Summer tyres stays soft and pliable above 7C and this means they reshape themselves and stick to the road, providing you with grip. However below 7C that rubber hardens to the point where instead of gripping onto the road surface it loses that cohesion and on wet, slushy or snowy conditions the grip, so traction and stopping distances becomes significantly worse.

Winter tyres on the other hand come into their own below 7C. The rubber stays soft at those lower temperatures and so are able to move and grip the road. Next, the tyre tread is different to allow better gripping in snow and slush. If you look at the picture below closely you can see that snow sticks in the tread and this helps provide better traction on snow. The little ridges on each knobble also grip into the road and slush to help things further:

Some Winter Tyres

Next is cost. Since the rubber on Summer tyres hardens below 7C it turns out that they wear much more quickly than Winter tyres that are designed to work in the cold. So if you switch to using Summer tyres in the Summer and Winter tyres in the Winter you’ll find that both pairs will last longer than using Summer tyres all year round. While the cost difference between Summer and Winter tyres isn’t great it means that in the long-term it can work out cheaper to have both sets of tyres – so long as you have a place to store the spare wheels and don’t use the same wheels and swap the tyres over (since that means paying for tyre fitting and balancing twice a year).

I was interested to see how good they were so bought a spare set of wheels with Winter tyres for my wife’s car when it started getting cold late last year and prayed for snow. Fortunately my prayers were answered and we’ve had one of the coldest Winters in recent years in the UK and plenty of snow. And I tell you what, having tried Winter tyres you’d be crazy not to fit them!

As I mentioned an inch of snow in the UK grinds the place to a halt, but an inch of snow when driving with Winter tyres is nothing at all – it’s just like driving on a wet road. Zero fuss. One night my wife was out babysitting and drove home while a couple of feet of snow was falling. Cars were abandoned all over the place and the only things moving were 4×4 vehicles and her little Fiat 500. I, on the other hand, ended up staying at a hotel from where I was coming home – despite having snow socks for my car, in the end I had to quit and call it a night. If I had Winter tyres I’d have had no problem getting home. Grip in the wet was also very good – altogether infinitely safer than my car on its useless Summer tyres. Sure, you still slip on ice, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as on Summers.

The fact that we stopped caring about the weather forecast because we knew we could get through any snow and slush took a lot of potential stress away and made me a Winter tyre convert. Whether it snows or not they’re far safer than Summer tyres and when it does snow it gives you a much higher chance of getting home without crashing into a tree. I’ll definitely be getting a spare set of wheels and Winter tyres for my car for next time. I would strongly urge you to do the same. Unless you live in Bora Bora. In which case, you lucky git!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

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