In some parts of continental Europe the prospect of driving without winter tyres between November and April is as unthinkable as driving without brakes – and just as hazardous. Indeed they are mandatory in Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden, and are recommended in most other parts of Northern Europe.
What exactly are winter tyres?
Winter tyres are designed specifically to cope with colder road surfaces, ice, rain and slush. They use a different rubber compound and tread pattern which give better braking/traction performance on snow/ice as well as on wet roads in cold conditions.
Read our winter driving tips
Few people in the UK know about winter tyres
In spite of their widespread use on European roads, there is a surprising lack of awareness about winter tyres in the UK.
Research carried out by the German tyre manufacturer Continental has identified that nearly half (47%) of motorists in the UK are either unaware that they exist or assume that they can only be used during times of heavy snow or ice. There isn’t even any mention of them in the Highway Code.
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Winter tyres and shorter braking distances
In fact winter tyres can be used in any conditions, but they are at their most effective in temperatures below 7 degrees centigrade (about 45 fahrenheit). This is because they don’t harden at lower temperatures, providing a much better grip on the road and ensuring that braking distances are significantly shorter – bringing a typical saloon to standstill on a snow-covered road (from a speed of 30mph) after 35 metres, compared to the braking distance of the same car fitted with normal tyres of 43 metres – the equivalent of two car lengths.
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What is the difference between winter tyres and summer tyres?
This is where it gets slightly technical: the rubber compound of a winter tyre is very different to its summer equivalent.
What happens to a summer tyre when the temperature drops is that the tyre compound gets so cold that its flexibility is severely reduced, making it dangerously unresponsive in poor weather conditions.
Winter tyres on the other hand are made from specially developed rubber so they don’t harden when its cold, which means increased grip, shorter braking distances, less skidding, and greater safety.
Will winter tyres prevent a skid?
There’s no guarantee that they will prevent a skid, but anything that reduces that possibility has got to be a good thing – especially when statistics show that drivers are six times more likely to have an accident during the winter months.
Can winter tyres be used in summer?
Continental Tyres insist that winter tyres are as quiet and comfortable as summer tyres and don’t wear any more quickly.
There is a slight trade off with stopping distances as a winter tyre doesn’t stop as quickly in the dry as a summer tyre; however, on balance if it is not possible to switch tyres in the winter, experts say you are better off with winter tyres all year round. This is because there is a much bigger difference between the stopping distance of summer tyres in the winter than winter tyres in the summer.
If you are reluctant to change tyres and have nowhere to store summer tyres when they are not in use, you are better off using winter tyres all year round.
Read our tips for driving long distances
What do UK motoring organisations say about winter tyres?
The view of the AA is that they make sense if you live in an area where winter conditions are likely to be worse for longer – like, for example, the countryside where country roads and lanes are less likely to be cleared of snow or gritted.
In towns and cities the AA says that it might be harder to justify the cost (estimated at up to £500 per car) 'though this has to be a personal decision depending on the risk of bad weather, your confidence when driving and how much you have to drive when snow and ice are around.' Overall it agrees that winter tyres provide much better grip and greatly reduced stopping distances.
A driver's view
'I live in a pocket of rural Kent, where 6ft deep snow drifts are not uncommon in the maze of country lanes around my village. At the beginning of the winter I bought a 4x4 in the confident expectation that skids and slides in ice and snow would be a thing of the past. It didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped. 4-wheel drive vehicles will help you get out of difficult conditions, but they won’t necessarily prevent you getting into them. Four engine-driven wheels can skid as easily as two. From memory I had about half a dozen alarming incidents when the car slewed around in icy conditions, on one occasion sliding uncontrollably backwards (not an experience I’d recommend).
'The following year I had winter tyres fitted to the same vehicle, and I didn’t skid once. This might be as a result of good fortune, more careful driving, or different road conditions – but in my view there seemed to be no doubt that the new tyres made a noticeable difference. It wasn’t a scientific experiment, and I’m no expert, but I doubt if I’ll ever again feel confident driving in snow or ice without winter tyres.'
And a couple more things to remember when choosing winter tyres
• Winter tyres should always be fitted as a set of four, otherwise the stability of the car could be affected.
• Check your insurance policy to see that your insurer needs to be informed of the change of tyres. Most don’t insist on this.