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This driver of a pickup appears to have swapped out his general-use tires, in the truck's bed, in favour of winter tires just in time to deal with snow-covered streets.The Associated Press

If you made a list of words that pop into your head when you think of Canada, winter might just come ahead of politeness, beavers and hockey.

But in some of the places with the lousiest winters, there are still Canadians who don’t drive with winter tires.

In a recent survey by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), 66 per cent of Canadians said they own winter tires. Provincially, that ranges from a high of 86 per cent in Quebec, where winter tires are required by law, to a low of 48 per cent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The biggest reason people give for not using winter tires? All-seasons are good enough. But for most of Canada, winter tires are better.

Once the temperature drops below 7 C, all-season radial tires get hard and lose their grip on pavement and ice.

So, what’s the difference?

Sure, winter is a season, but all-season tires aren’t designed for the cold.

You’ve probably heard this in tire commercials: Once the temperature outside drops below 7 C, the rubber on all-season tires starts to get hard, similar to a hockey puck.

So, as it gets colder, they lose their grip on pavement and ice. That means they slide, lose control in turns and take longer to stop.

But winter tires are made of a softer rubber compound, with more silica, that keeps its grip to minus 40 C.

They stick better to cold roads. Drive a car in Edmonton in December with all-seasons and then drive that same car with winter tires. It’s like walking across an icy parking lot in winter hiking boots instead of dress shoes.

“[Winter tires] are one of the few tire products that people buy that they’re completely satisfied with,” said Gene Petersen, tire testing manager with Consumer Reports. “They do what they’re supposed to do.”

Winter tires are made of a softer rubber that grips cold roads better. One test showed they stop 1.8 metres shorter after braking than all-seasons.

Shorter stops

In Consumer Reports tests on a skating rink, winter tires stopped 1.8 metres shorter, on average, than all-season tires.

Winter tires also have biting edges and treads designed for better handling in snow. So some have better traction in deep snow, but they might be a little worse than others at stopping on glare ice or cold, bare roads (but they’ll still be better than all-seasons).

In Consumer Reports tests on moderately-packed snow, cars with winter tires got going faster than all-seasons – it took winter tires 19.5 metres to go from 10 to 30 kilometres an hour compared with 26 metres for all-seasons.

To figure out whether one winter tire might be better than others for deep snow, look at ratings online and ask at the store – you can’t tell just by looking at the treads on the tire.

Some winter tires are imbedded with metal studs. While they promise enhanced grip, they can also be noisy and damage driveways.

Only snowflakes can handle winter

It can get confusing at that tire store, though: There are all-season tires, winter tires, studded tires and all-weather tires.

Most all-seasons have the M+S symbol – short for “mud and snow”– on the side, but they’re not winter tires.

All winter tires must have the mountain snowflake symbol on the side.

By law, that M+S is all that’s required on mountain highways in British Columbia in the winter, but, “for better traction on snow and ice,” the province recommends tires with the mountain snowflake.

And then, there are studded tires, which have metal studs embedded in the tread. They’re designed to provide even better grip on ice than winter tires. They’re also noisy, can damage driveways and some provinces don’t allow them on the roads in the summer.

Finally, there are all-weather tires, which also have the mountain snowflake symbol on the side.

They’re designed to stay on your car all year. They’re a compromise: The rubber is softer than an all-season, but not as soft as a winter tire. Generally, they’re good – but not great – all year round.

It's a good idea for motorists to have two complete sets of tires – one specifically for winter, and one for the rest of the year. Having both sets on their rims makes for more efficient changes, too.MICHAELA REHLE/X01425

But do I actually need them?

If you live anywhere with icy roads and lots of snow – that’s nearly all of the country – winter tires are a safe bet, even if you have all-wheel drive.

So you’ll need an extra full set of tires – Transport Canada recommends the same types of tires on all four wheels. And, to make it easier to switch them every year, consider an extra set of rims. And, in Ontario, insurance companies are required to give you a discount if you use them.

But winter tires aren’t magic – you still have to drive for the conditions. That means going slower and leaving plenty of room between you and the car in front.

If you live somewhere that doesn’t normally see much snow, such as Victoria or Vancouver, or if you can stay off the roads until they’re ploughed, then all-seasons might be fine.

And, they’re not kidding with the name – winter tires are designed for winter.

“In our testing, we found winter tires generally do not stop as well as all-season tires on cleared roads – dry and wet – at temperatures near freezing temperatures and above, and their soft, pliable tread wears more quickly,” Petersen said. “All good reasons to remove winter tires at the end of winter.”

Mechanic Lou Trottier runs through the things to look for when choosing a winter tire, and he's adamant that a set are needed for your car when the temperature starts to drop.

The Globe and Mail