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Should I fit winter tyres? Everything you need to know

By Paul Connolly

Winter brings a range of hazards, not just ice and snow.

You can encounter rain, flooding, aqua-planing, slippery leaves, fog, high wind, fallen trees and many other dangers.

Studies show that drivers are six times more likely to have an accident in winter, with the numbers spiralling during ice and snow.

That’s why it’s critically important to have good grip on the road, which means proper tyres.

Normal tyres that are properly fitted, undamaged and with the right tread are perfectly legal and offer a good level of safety and protection during our normal winter weather.

However, a great way to keep you and your family extra safe is to fit specialised winter tyres.

They are not mandatory in the UK and aren’t common in towns and cities. However, people in more remote areas, or who face a lot of bad weather, may choose to fit them.

Bear in mind if you’re travelling they are compulsory in most European countries between certain defined dates usually form the end of November to the beginning of April.

(In many countries, it’s also compulsory to stow and fit snow chains where appropriate, too.)

What are winter tyres and how do they work?

They are designed – rather obviously – to offer better traction on the road in cold driving conditions.

Winter tyres have been treated with a softer compound than normal tyres, aimed at making them grippier and better-performing in temperatures less than 7C.

Additionally, these tyres have deep grooves and snipes – narrow cuts – in the tread, which help disperse water and ice outwards thus improving traction.

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What’s the evidence they work?

Rather a lot, actually. The independent road safety charity TyreSafe, for example, carried out extensive tests on the efficacy of winter tyres and on braking, cornering, etc.

It found that in 5C, a car on normal cars took 70.5 metres to stop, while a car with winter tyres took 65.7m. That’s 4.8m or around 14 feet shorter. Put snow into the picture, and the difference is even more dramatic, says the charity.

Tyresafe says in the conditions, a two-wheel drive car with winter tyres is safer than a 4x4 on summer tyres.

How do recognise winter tyres?

Legitimate ones have a snowflake symbol on the side of the tyre wall.

Note, however, that some tyres are marks “M+S”, which means “Mud and Snow”. They may have improved traction over summer tyres, but they are not necessarily proper winter tyres.

The RAC says fitting winter tyres should not affect your car insurance but recommends that you check with your insurance company.

How much do they cost?

The truth is that fitting winter tyres is an upfront added expense and there is no point denying that.

However, it is not as simple a calculation as thinking they cost, say 4 x £54 (£216).

If you are swapping over, then your summer tires will last longer. So overall, the cost, whilst somewhat higher, is not disproportionately so.

Competition between the major manufacturers like Continental, Michelin, Hancook and the like is pretty intense, and prices aren’t much more than for normal tyres.

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Where do I store winter/summer tyres?

Many retailers will store your tyres for free if you purchase tyres from them. Some businesses like Halfords will also offer a ‘Tyre Hotel’ service from, for example, £7.50 per tyre per year.

If you’ve room, simply keep them at home, ideally under cover; a tarp will do, or the back of the garage or shed. Halfords advises: If stored without rims they should be stacked on their side to a maximum height of four.

What are all-season tyres?

All-season, or all-weather tyres were developed countries with moderate climates featuring wet, mild winters – just like Ireland and the UK. 

They were invented, says Halfords, “to give drivers a confident, safe driving experience all year round without the need to change tyres twice a year”.

They will not be as effective in harsh winter weather as the better winter tyres, but they will give superior performance on ice, water and snow compared to summer tyres.

This is thanks to innovations like their high-density siping, which gives the tread extra bite on the surface of the road. They are unlikely, however, to satisfy European winter tyre regulations.

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What are the alternatives to winter tyres?

Snow chains are of course an old favourite. They are very inexpensive and effective, but can be hard to fit particularly at the side of a road when your hands are cold.

Another alternative is snow socks, which are fabric covers that fit over the driving wheels. The advantages are they are much easier to fit, however you can’t drive far in them, and certainly not on tarmac or stones.

Plus they are very size-specific so you need be sure you are buying the correct one for your wheels.

That said, they are a useful Get-Out-Of-Jail card if you’re stuck.

At the end of the day, it’s an individual choice, and it may well depend on where you live and how you view the safety-cost/benefit equation.

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