Should I Switch to Winter Tires? Are Tire Studs Legal? We Find Out
While we’re in the midst of covering this year’s Speciality Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, we can’t help but get some fun ideas on how to trick out our own rides, like wheels. But when you swap wheels, you’ll probably want to wrap some new rubber on them, too, and with winter fast approaching it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Now, we fancy ourselves to be automotive experts in quite a number of ways– and our “Over the Edge” guy Greg Carloss recently became a tire tester for a day— but for this we’d like to reference some findings made by a company that is a day-by-day tire expert as well as a MotorWeek sponsor, TireRack.com. They recently published a public service announcement-esque report with some interesting bullet points. Some of it is obvious, some of it isn’t, but all of it is for your safety. Consider this a “Your Drive” edition of “This Just In.”
For starters, they found that riding on a set of dedicated winter tires is preferred if your area’s annual snow accumulation is 36 inches or more. Likewise, drivers in areas with between 24- and 36-inches are advised to use winter or all-season tires. Winter tires are made with specific tread patterns and cold temperature rubber compounds (which see enhancements as technology continues to progress), making them more ideal for sub-freezing temperatures. Optimal tires means optimal traction and, well, you don’t need us to tell you why that’s important.
This leads us into the next point that confuses many new car buyers: Many OEM and replacement all-season tires don the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol on the sidewall, but that does not mean you’re impervious to the elements. The 3PMSF symbol indicates light snow acceleration traction only, which means braking and turning grip is not certified. To be fair, even with a dedicated set of winter tires, you’re never 100 percent in command of the elements, but they can offer greater chances of success in snowy/icy conditions, again, going back to their construction and design.
Now let’s say winter tires aren’t enough. What’s a go-to way to increase traction, if it is legal in your area? That would be to add studs to your winter tires. Winter-only studs can help you out by digging into the ice and snow, thus increasing grip; just bear in mind that not every winter tire is designed to accommodate them. So if you’re looking to outfit your car’s cleats with spikes, make sure you buy the right shoes in the first place. Furthermore, not every region has the same laws on stud tire usage. For example, our home state of Maryland allows studded tires from November 1st through March 31st, but only for vehicles registered and operated in select counties. So, if you travel a lot, studs might put you in danger of a traffic ticket.
Fortunately, many modern cars are able to take electronic measurements from multiple variables– road condition, driver input, etc– and optimize the driving experience. These driver assistance systems, however, cannot substitute for worn or balding tires. Whether it’s your drivemode system, traction control or even ABS, these helping hands depend on optimal tires in order to provide optimal grip.
We understand that buying a set of winter tires means more cash upfront. It also means needing a place to store your all-season or summer tires in the interim. One silver lining is that by having another set of tires, you can prolong the lives of all your normal tires and the cost may offset itself over time. The chart above visualizes the concept; while it means a higher initial investment, you can put less miles on each set over the years and keep the same tires in rotation over time. Besides, you’ll more than likely want to keep your summers/all-seasons if they’re in good condition anyway, so it should work out regardless.
At the end of the day, the best way to stay safe during wintery conditions is to stay off the roads if at all possible. We all abide by the laws of physics and the whims of mother nature, though proper winter tires can help prepare you should the need to hit wintry roads arise.
And if you have a question or comment, reach out to us here at MotorWeek.