The popular image of winter may be mince pies, Christmas carols and a season to be jolly, but that’s certainly not the case on the roads.
As the last few years have proved, it’s awful when the snow and ice arrive. According to Continental Tyres, drivers are six times more likely to have an accident in the winter; and in the dreadful weather at the start of 2010, more than three million drivers did just that.
What’s amazing is that there is a simple way for drivers to give themselves a better chance in such conditions: winter tyres.
When can I use winter tyres in the UK?
The first thing to bear in mind is that you don’t need to wait for snow and ice. Temperature is the critical factor, and winter tyres work when it’s below seven degrees celsius, when the summer equivalent (fitted to most British cars) is less effective.
What are the advantages of winter tyres?
In these conditions, winter tyres have two main advantages: first, they are made from slightly different rubber compounds, which remain flexible at low temperatures; and, secondly, they have different tread patterns, with more small cuts in the rubber that generate more grip on wet or snow-covered roads.
The differences in performance could be life-saving. According to Michelin, the stopping distance from 31mph on snow is 63 metres in a car fitted with summer tyres, and 32 metres in an identical car fitted with winter tyres.
As well as that, because they have more grip, a car fitted with winter tyres is more stable and safer, so you’re more likely to make it round a corner.
How effective are winter tyres?
The good news is the theory works in practice. A couple of years ago, we fitted winter tyres to a Volkswagen Golf and our Senior Road Tester was very impressed: ‘Since fitting the tyres, my confidence in the car has increased. Its grip and stopping power are now so good in the wet and cold, I can be reassured that, if the worst should happen, I could brake or swerve, while still in complete control of the car.
‘After experiencing the benefits of winter tyres both on the road and in a testing environment,’ he said, ‘I believe most British drivers would be shocked if they felt the difference.’
What are the disadvantages of winter tyres?
Above all, the biggest problem is that winter tyres don’t come cheap, although the blow is lessened when you remember that, all the time you have them on, you’re saving the wear on your other set, so they’ll last longer.
Perhaps more of a problem is what to do with the tyres you take off. You must change all four at once – and you need to keep the summer set for when the weather improves – but four tyres take up a lot of space. In some cases, your retailer will keep one set in a ‘tyre hotel’, but you may have to pay for the privilege.
You may also have heard that winter tyres give a less comfortable ride than the summer equivalent, but that hasn’t been the case in our experience – in fact, our tester said his Golf was more comfortable on winter tyres.
Are winter tyres worth it in the UK?
Ultimately, the simple question is whether or not you need to fit winter tyres in the first place. There’s no doubt that they improve the way your car behaves in winter weather, but they are not without their inconveniences, so it probably depends on how much you’ll have to drive in the winter.
If you need to drive in parts of the country where the weather is wintry and cold for long periods, then winter tyres probably are worth the hassle and expense; but, if you live somewhere where the temperature rarely drops below seven degrees or you simply cut down on driving in the winter, then it probably makes more sense to stick with summer tyres all year round.
Our final word of advice is that, if you do want a set for winter, it’s best to get them sooner rather than later. Stocks are limited, and they’ll soon run out once the forecasters start warning that poor weather is on the way.