Almost all cars sold in the UK are fitted with summer tyres. We are used to using these all year round – usually without problems – but summer tyres are not really designed for winter use and do have limitations:
- At temperatures below 7 degrees C, summer tyres become hard and stiff
- The tread loses the flexibility that enables it to give maximum grip
- Stopping times on summer tyres in low temperatures are greatly increased and grip is reduced
- Summer tyres are useless in snow…
Most of these limitations are manageable with care, but what is not manageable is the poor performance of summer tyres in snowy conditions. One of the reasons the UK has such big traffic problems when it snows is that the vast majority of vehicles have tyres on that provide almost no grip in snow.
The solution to this is winter tyres. The rubber compound used in winter tyres has a greater amount of silicone in it. This means that the tyre tread stays flexible – and grippy – in very cold conditions. Winter tyres also tend to have a different and slightly deeper tread than summer tyres, enabling them to bite into snow more effectively, providing much better grip.
In many European countries, fitting winter tyres from November – April is standard practice. It is not in the UK, but if we have many more winters like 2009/10, it could well become more popular.
Isn’t Changing My Tyres Expensive and A Big Hassle?
Using winter tyres is not as much hassle as you might think.
If you want to change between winter tyres and summer tyres, you will obviously need two sets of tyres. What most people do is have their winter tyres fitted to a set of cheap, steel wheels. In the winter, their alloys and summer tyres come off and go into storage and their steel wheels with winter tyres are fitted.
Changing a set of wheels only takes a few minutes in a garage and doesn’t cost much. Although you have to own two sets of wheels and tyres, the wear to each set of tyres is roughly halved – so your tyres should last twice as long.
You also get the added bonus of protecting your car’s ‘proper’ wheels from being exposed to salt and winter dirt all winter, which can speed up corrosion and require a lot of cleaning.
Remember – winter tyres should be fitted to all four wheels of your car. Fitting winter tyres to two wheels only is potentially dangerous as it will unbalance the handling and grip characteristics of your car and could increase the likelihood of you losing control.
I Still Don’t Want Two Sets of Wheels – Is There an Alternative?
If you want the benefits of winter tyres but do not want to have to swap wheels or tyres twice a year, there are two alternatives:
- Fit all-season tyres to your car
- Use winter tyres all year round
All-season tyres are a compromise between summer tyres and winter tyres, as their name suggests. They are widely used in America and Canada. For many people in the UK they might be ideal, especially for drivers who do most of their driving in rural areas.
Drivers who live in very rural areas that get more snow than average – for example the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and the Scottish Highlands – might consider using winter tyres all year round, especially if most of their driving is local.
Using winter tyres in summer conditions probably won’t cause any problems unless you like to drive in a sporting manner… Opinions vary over whether your winter tyres will wear out faster than summer tyres would when used in summer. It probably depends on your driving habits and where you live – the south of England has much more warm weather than the north and Scotland.