Should you switch to winter tyres?

by , Cars Researcher Transport & Travel 28 October 2011
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Winter’s on the way, and you’ve probably noticed several tyre makers, car manufacturers and fast-fit centres promoting winter tyres. So should you go out and buy some for your car?

Winter tyre

During last December’s cold snap, we asked for your views about winter tyres. Many of you strongly disagreed with our suggestion that, for many in the UK, it is hard to justify their cost.

As the weather starts to turn cold again, we thought we’d return to the subject. We’ve had three spells of extreme cold weather (by UK standards) in the last two winters. So it’s no surprise that many Which? Conversation commenters are weighing up whether they need to invest in winter tyres.

The benefits of winter tyres

Having recently compared summer and winter tyres myself, there’s no doubt that the latter really do help in adverse conditions. We know from independent tests that they grip better on ice and snow – and actually, tyre makers’ data supports the fact that they grip better below 7˚C. This would prevent many motorists becoming stranded, or worse, crashing. And in severe wet conditions, the deeper tread grooves are often better at dispersing surface water.

So I completely understand why some people living in very rural areas are preparing their cars by fitting winter tyres. It makes good sense if there’s another bad winter and you don’t fancy being cut-off. If that sounds like your situation, and the weather turns, I suggest you go out and buy some winter tyres soon as UK outlets don’t have a never-ending supply.

But if you live in a town or city, should you switch to winter tyres before the weather turns bad?

Usually, this involves buying not just four new tyres, but also a spare set of steel rims to fit them to. You’ll need to swap onto your winter wheels in late October or November, and back onto standard summer rubber in March. It’s important to change back when the weather picks up, as winter tyres have inferior grip and handling to summer ones in normal, warmer UK conditions.

In terms of cost, four winter tyres and spare rims for a Mini start from £560, excluding assembly. If, like me, you’re a family-hatch driver, KwikFit quotes £490.40 for a set of four 205/60 R16 Goodyear Ultragrip8 winter tyres – rims are extra.

Those up-front costs may seem eye-watering, but overall costs aren’t actually as high as they sound. You’ll get wear from both sets of tyres, so once you’ve made the investment, the average time between replacements will be roughly doubled.

The importance of good driving techniques

However, I’m still not convinced UK drivers in towns and cities need winter tyres, for two reasons. First, while there has been some extreme weather in the past couple of years, UK winters tend to be far milder than countries where winter tyre use is mandatory.

Winter tyres would certainly help drivers get their cars off the drive when it’s icy or snowing, and would even be beneficial in freezing rain. But prolonged snow and ice are rare. Second, I believe good driving techniques are just as important as the tyres fitted.

My 33-year driving career includes extensive personal year-round driving in the UK and Europe. Plus, I also have professional driving experiences from being a car mechanic on breakdown duty during the 1980-81 cold-snap, through to my time as an engineer in the mid-90s, testing tyres on the frozen lakes of northern Sweden. I’ve also overseen Which?’s role in tyre testing over the last 10 years.

I’ve never been one to shy away from travel when the going gets tough, but I’ve never had to fit cold-weather tyres to my own cars as I’ve never found myself stranded due to ice or snow.

As a young mechanic, my employer wouldn’t have allowed me behind the wheel without showing me how to drive in slippery conditions – higher gears, gentle clutch, throttle and brake use, careful steering and above all, lower speeds. I’ve used these skills in every car I’ve driven, without getting stuck or crashing.

Improve tyre education

I also think more could be done to improve drivers’ awareness of the importance of keeping their tyres in check. Surveys (including our own) show that the vast majority of UK drivers don’t pay much attention to the condition of their tyres, regardless of what type they are – often running around on partially bald, damaged or under-inflated tyres.

That’s a bigger health risk to every driver on the roads than using summer tyres throughout winter. So why don’t garages offer free tyre health-checks as well as selling us winter rubber?

But I know this debate won’t fade away. As the industry markets winter tyres, many of you want to know more about their pros and cons.

We’ve already tested an alternative solution to this by looking at some all-season tyres (Which? members can see these on our main website) which are designed to offer an option that combines winter and summer tyre characteristics and that can be used all year round.

They won’t answer everyone’s needs, so here at Which?, we’re looking into historical weather data to independently establish whether there’s a case for more UK drivers to switch tyres twice yearly. In the meantime, if you live in a rural area, where winter or all-season tyres make driving your car safer in adverse weather conditions, we’d advise considering changing sooner rather than later.

356 comments

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Nick in Wales

I read somewhere that in the UK we should change our tyres when they reach 3mm tread depth, apparently below 3mm stopping distance performance, grip and wet road handling drop off a cliff where as from 8mm to 3mm performance just declines gradually. Below 3mm traction with summer tyres in snow, slush and mud is negligible as the tread fills up and they effectively become slicks. In fact even with winter tyres I’ve seen a recommendation that if you drive on snow most of the winter (Scandinavia, Alps, etc) you should change your tyres at 4mm. I always change my tyres at 3mm (winters too) because of the type of roads I drive on and I don’t begrudge a penny of the extra hundred quid or so a year. It makes my mind boggle to think that people will take out expensive extended warranties on their televisions and then drive around on tyres which by common consent are not fit for purpose. The casualty rates on Britain’s roads have been in decline for many years but they are now bottoming out, we now have to make a value judgement as to whether the current body count is acceptable or we can do more. There has been a suggestion that the relaxing of the spasm of speed cameras in the last couple of years is the cause of the slowing in the rate of decline of casualties or are we just reaching a point where improving road safety is just getting more difficult as all the easy targets have been hit. I’m not a great believer in more laws but actually toughening up on tyres within the construction and use regulations may be a way forward if there is still a will to further improve our already good record on road safety. The introduction of DRLs (day running lights) and tyre pressure monitors on new cars in the last couple of years might make some difference but I suspect getting tough on tyres would achieve more, but that is my subjective opinion.

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malcolm r

I find daytime running lights much of the time to be distracting and unecessary. I did once work out that the energy they use would power a town of 300 000 houses.

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Nick in Wales

DRLs on cars are not popular with a lot of motorcyclists in the UK, for valid reasons methinks but as I have driven (and ridden) a lot in Scandinavia they don’t bother me much. I do think that there seems to be some sort arms race between certain manufacturers with DRLs (you know who you are Audi and Landrover), perhaps a more sensible option would have been to bring in the requirement for automatic lights on (in low light or tunnels) like we have on one of our cars, I still can’t get my head round when they self dip though. Tyre pressure monitors are notoriously unreliable from my experience.

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wavechange

Nick – My view is that the time to change tyres depends on the time of year. Approaching Christmas is no time to be take chances but I worry less if they are wearing down in summer, though obviously you are at greater risk on flooded roads than with new tyres. It’s just a matter of common sense.

It’s not just tyre treads. Many rarely check tyre pressures or look for damage or objects in the treads, make under-bonnet checks, adjust head restraints when getting into an unfamiliar car, check lights, and so on. I frequently tell people in car parks that they have a failed light and the most common response is ‘I know’. I once got a call from a friend who had a puncture and had mislaid the breakdown recovery number, having not needed it. The temporary spare had never been needed and the pressure was under half what it should have been. It’s probably good that we have TPMs these days. I’m not convinced they can be trusted but they might be more reliable than the average driver.

Next time you are on a motorway, look out for vehicles with one or more under-inflated tyres.

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Nick in Wales

I going let my fetishes show again, we have both a spare wheel/tyre AND the built in pump/gunge in our cars, I even persuaded my wife to do a driving day round Silverstone which included skid pan training. Our local council (Powys) has a scheme by which any resident under 25 can do pass-plus and anybody over 55 can have a one hour driving assessment for free, I think it must be because our roads can be so lethal to the unwary. I did do an IAM assessment on my motorcycle a couple of years ago which was interesting.

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wavechange

Malcolm – What annoys me about car lighting is that some manufacturers seem to focus on the decorative rather than functional aspects. I expect that the strings of LEDs used as DRLs will start to twinkle or flash soon. I wonder if there are regulations for decorative lighting. Some modern cars look very naff. At least Wolsley cars had a subtle illuminated badge.

What’s next? Illuminated caps for tyre valves? No – that’s been done.

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tony h

It’s all very well increasing the safety of car drivers (maybe) with DRLs, but by making pedestrians and cyclists relatively fade into the background DRLs have to put their lives more at risk.

There’s a case for DRLs in Scandinavia where you can go several minutes without seeing another car and maybe benefit from waking up to the presence of traffic (heaven help the unlit elk). But in southern England, at least, you should be looking out for oncoming cars every moment, and if you can’t see them in daytime without them sporting DRLs maybe you shouldn’t be driving, as you certainly won’t spot pedestrians and cyclists.

I sometimes think some people won’t be satisfied until the man with the red flag is reintroduced, and even then there will still be fatalities – probably among the men with red flags…

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dieseltaylor

DRL’s I actually complained to I think it was my MP about. AFAIR the proponents were the Scandanavian countries primarily and the agins were the Dutch, and I think us.

The fact that in densely populated countries with pedestrians and cyclists, and motorcyclists, the highlighting of cars to the detriment of the visibility of these other classes seemed/seems dangerous.

The requirement to turn them off in countries which felt that they created too much visual clutter was not part of the discussion and became EU wide requirement.

TPMS systems are generally accurate however the replacement costs are not trivial and of course we are looking at a future world with hundreds of millions of tiny old batteries being disposed of each year. [Apparently over 1 billion road vehicles exist]

I am involved with a company that invented SAW resonators that could be embedded in tyres and read by interrogators in the wheel arch. They are commercially available from specialist performance car equipment suppliers. They were so accurate that it had to be explained to BMW that at very high speeds air molecules would move to the tyre periphery and there then would be a small variance. Technically superior as always “on” and a life longer than the tyre.

However getting car makers to install the loom to the wheel arch, and the tyre manufacturers to embed the resonators was not trivial particularly as there is profit in replacement battery TPMS every 5-10 years.

Incidentally the one size to fit all of the EU leads to some pretty stupid situations as those who who have single hose cold fill washing machines will know. Not a widespread complaint in northern countries but for vast swathes of the Mediterranean with roof mounted hot water tanks a completely idiotic situation.

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wavechange

“…it had to be explained to BMW that at very high speeds air molecules would move to the tyre periphery…” Air molecules don’t exist outside science fiction. :-(

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Nick in Wales

Here I sit in rural Wales surrounded by “hills” 2000 feet high with cars shod in winter tyres and without a flake of lying snow. Whereas not that far away “snow chaos! reins with traffic stuck on the motorways, people sleeping in church halls and visitors trapped with friends and family because their vehicles cannot cope with a few inches of a child’s Christmas favourite. I love the image in this BBC report of a Reliant owner trying to make headway with a little help from his friends, a least a Reliant is easy to push as they weigh not a lot. :-)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30610567

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Nick in Wales

This quote from the BBC was the best methinks: “I arrived here at 20:30 and have bedded down for the night after parts of the car park became impassable”.

It’s a four inches of snow guys!

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David 'Hutch'

Drove down from NE Scotland to the East Midlands for Christmas last week. Fitted my winter tyres before leaving (just in case) I was late fitting them this year as it’s been mild so far. What utter chaos the last 24 hours of snow and frost have brought to the Mansfield area! There wasn’t actually that much snow but the total lack of gritting or ploughing, here at least, brought complete mayhem. My car with 4 winter tyres on was driveable through the worst of it without a trace of wheelspin, or sliding, while the roads all around us were littered with stranded vehicles and the town was gridlocked with massive queues especially on the slightest of inclines. My Dad’s in his 80′s and has all-season tyres on his old Rover. Again, no problem. It’s been a ‘no brainer’ to me for many years. Why wouldn’t you drive on tyres designed to perform most safely for the conditions? Lots of other contributions on the subject have been made, but it’s worth repeating that it is not just about the snow and ice, it’s about grip below +7C, and greatly improved stopping distance in low temperature and wet conditions. No matter how ‘good’ a driver you are, if your summer tyres aren’t gripping as well on a wet cold road at +4C, you will potentially hit something in an emergency stop situation, that the right tyres could have halted you for…. budget for them. You won’t regret it, and once you have them your summer tyres will last that much longer. So then for the next many 1000s of miles your annual cost amounts to the change overs. My son thanks me for this advice every winter (including yesterday) when he and his wife drive their cars that much more confidently, and safely, in the winter months.

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Nick in Wales

Spot on David, I couldn’t agree with you more! Yesterday evening on the news it said that the engineering works on the East Coast main line had over run and that Kings Cross services wouldn’t be running and I just couldn’t believe it when I heard that thousands of people turned up and were just waiting for someone to magic trains out of thin air this morning. Having winter tyres is a bit like having house insurance, I can’t believe people will spend a fortune on satellite TV and then not insure their home and then when they have a flood they beg for help from friends, family or their local council, winter comes every year but many people seem to have missed that fact and hope for the best and rely on the public services. I used to work in telecommunications and was amazed by the number of subscribers who didn’t have a corded phone so when there was a power cut they couldn’t ring the electricity company, duh! I am still wondering how the bloke in the Reliant got on, and worse vehicle for driving in snow I can’t image even with winter tyres.

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John Ward

I While I endorse the comment from David ‘Hutch’ above, I also feel that it is best, if possible, not to go out on snow-covered and icy roads. While your car might have good traction and grip with its winter tyres on, there is always the driver behind who has probably not got a grip on reality and is also driving too close.

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dieseltaylor

JW – Whilst I understand the thrust of your post it does seem to accept the status quo that its OK for summer tyres to be the default tyre regardless of the fact they are not really suited to the weather that most of the UK “enjoys” over a year. Not driving may be a solution for some but I suspect train and bus drivers need to get to work regardless of the weather.

Also given the proof positive of serious deterioration in a tyres ability once the tread goes below 3mm and I think there is a major case that perhaps “we” are not being very sensible.

I am not sure that we get useful enough information from the data that police take from accidents to be able to have any great certainty on the part played by tyres in fatalities, injuries, and accidents where they are asked to attend.

The number of incidents where a car slides off a road but the car is recovered without informing the police [ or possibly the insurance company] mean that data is poor and so it is difficult to quantify the costs and benefits of any action. I make an exception for the 3mm tread as that should be calcuable as to cost but the benefit side is a tougher ask.

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tony h

Well, with all the comments about summer tyres having poor performance at low temperatures on dry roads, I gave mine a good testing last night. At 1.5 degrees, I was unable to detect any significant loss of grip, or at least there was considerably more grip than on freshly salted roads, which is what you need to be anticipating at this time of year (winter tyres won’t help you with that, either).

That said, the snarl up in France shows once again that when you need winter tyres, you really do need them. Chains are really for isolated incidents only, but in France were responsible for blocking rods as people stopped to fit them.

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Adie

Winter tyres are considerably better. In this few inches we’ve had, my RWD 5 series BMW has driven around a Land Rover with summer tyres on, ascended hills which FWD cars can’t and break with confidence.
I could not recommend winter tyres highly enough.
People have a misconception that BMWs and Mercedes are bad in the snow. Well these cars are mad ion a country which has more inclement weather than the UK. How do they cope there? They fit winter tyres. We in the UK are behind with this I’m afraid. They should be compulsory from November to April.

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Nick in Wales

Whilst I don’t agree that drivers should be compelled to fit winter tyres but it really does irritate me when people get into deep sh*t because they haven’t and they should have bought winter rubber.

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Tim

Quite a few years ago I decided to stop clearing the steep shared 50m of drive that my neighbour also uses because he never bothered to do any work to clear the snow. The gradient at the steepest point is about 8%. The result is that I never fail to drive up it once I have brushed-off anything exceeding 150mm. That is easy enough. My neighbour now has to leave his car at the roadside whenever there is any snow or significant ice. I drive an ordinary 2.0 FWD Diesel hatch with snow tyres, whilst he drives a 2.0 petrol saloon with summer tyres fitted.

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tony h

In the Autobild 2014/2015 winter tyre test, 50 different models of tyre were tested. After initial assessment, only the 16 got through to the second round of testing. According to Autobild:
“Braking on a wet road doesn’t exactly count among the strengths of winter tyres. Only six braked comparably to the summer tyre [that was also tested]“.

Meaning that the average winter tyre is significantly worse at braking on a wet road. Now, I don’t know about you people who want to make winter tyres compulsory, but I spend a lot of time driving on wet roads in winter, and next to no time braking on snow or ice-covered roads, so everyone being obliged to fit winter tyres would actually reduce my level of safety, especially as I’d imagine that braking is involved in most accidents…

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dieseltaylor

Tony – I like more detail :

” The Test Series

Auto Bild included a summer tyre in these tests, only for the purpose of direct comparison. As expected, this tyre proved to be of no use in snow, with a braking distance of 31m more than the top winter tyre. Also, the summer tyre fared quite poorly in its traction abilities.

The summer tyre, however, exceeded the best winter tyre’s performance in dry testing. Its 4.6m shorter braking distance compared to the finest winter tyre and its exceptional dry handling proved that changing tyres according to seasons is inevitable.

The wet performance scores were the most interesting though. The summer tyre beat 15 out of top 16 winter tyres, beaten only by Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 to achieve the second spot in wet braking performance. It, however, stood ninth in wet handling and didn’t fare well in the hydroplaning tests too. These results particularly mark an overall improvement for cold weather radials compared to previous years.”

Ah yes handling and aquaplaning which compared to emergency stops are IMO very important as emergency stops form a tiny minute part of my 40 years of driving.

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tony h

I can’t recall an accident of my own or acquaintances that hasn’t involved braking by one party or the other. I can’t recall any accident that has involved aquaplaning.

As for handling, choosing an appropriate cornering speed is something each of us does every trip. If that selected is slightly slower due to worse tyre handling characteristics, then the accident will occur at a lower speed with less energy. We have less choice in emergency braking situations.

Moreover, given that winter tyres are in general more expensive than summer tyres, people might be more likely to go for a budget option, and might also delay renewing them until the tread depth was smaller (when would they get their MOT done?), especially if they rarely encountered snow like most in SE England.

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dieseltaylor

I am pretty sure that at some stage in 99% of accidents someone hits the brakes at some stage but that is often too late to be of much use. It is interesting with the spread of carcams to see if decent data can be gained .

This was not an accident but my wife did a 720 on a motorway early on a cold rainy morning in November. Very fortunately the M5 was fairly empty and she ended up on the hard shoulder facing the right way before a stream of traffic passed by. That is when we stopped using summer tyres.

So no accident, no fatalities but all down to aquaplaning at a legal speed. I knew of two places – one on the M4 and one on the M5 where water across the motorway is excessive – and the rain at the time is no indicator of previous downfalls that you may encounter on the tarmac.

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tony h

Here’s a link to the Autobild test for those who read German:

http://www.autobild.de/bilder/winterreifen-test-2014-2015-225-50-r-17-5328009.html#bild6

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dieseltaylor

BTW sensible testing and analysis here – apart from the temperatures of tests and the handling qualities are not addressed. Concentrating solely on braking may be easy to arrange but as mentioned above cornering safely and aquaplaning are more common daily events.

http://www.tyrereviews.co.uk/Article/2013-Auto-Bild-All-Season-Tyre-Test.htm

There is also the 2014 test.

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Nick in Wales

Surely when choosing any product one takes all factors into account not just one or two, for example if I was going to buy a cooker then I would look for one that cooked lots of different meals not just one. Winter tyre performance exceeds that of summer tyres by varying amounts in almost all areas at lower temperatures, also the reduction of performance of winter tyres as temperatures rise is much less compared to the sudden and significant loss of performance suffered by summer tyres as temperatures fall. Thus a winter tyre might perform slightly worse than a summer tyre at 12C whilst a summer tyre will fair very badly at 2C. Specific scenarios might shed more heat than light on this matter, the key argument is would the introduction of the compulsory use of winter tyres create enough benefit (saved lives, disruption etc) to justify the costs, not to an individual but to society in general. In the UK that argument is not clear cut, what is obvious though is that the tyre tread limit does need to be increased to 3mm. For us living in rural Great Britain the switch to winter tyres should largely be a “no brainer ” but the government has not chosen to make the issue a priority because most of the driving population live in conurbations.

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