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.

339 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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