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Even at that low speed, winter tires outperformed all-seasons, taking considerably less distance to come to a complete stop.Hankook Tire Europe GmbH/The Associated Press

I’ve never had winter tires and have always used all-seasons. My girlfriend and I just bought a car together and she wants to get winter tires. Our mortgage payments have shot up over the last few months and we’re trying to trim unnecessary expenses, so I’m wondering: Will winter tires make enough of a difference on the road to justify their cost? Aren’t all-seasons enough for, well, all seasons? – Aaron, Winnipeg

If you live anywhere with ice and snow, having winter tires will buy some peace of mind when the weather gets harsh, a tire expert said.

“It’s an added cost, of course, but for those people [who can’t stay home when there’s snow on the roads], it’s necessary,” said Ryan Pszczolkowski, tire program manager at Consumer Reports. “Our testing – anyone’s testing – has proven that winter tires work on snow and ice.”

Winter tires have a mountain snowflake symbol on the side – so do all-weather tires, which we’ll get to – that shows they’ve passed an acceleration test on medium-packed snow.

All-season tires may have an M+S symbol – short for mud and snow – but they’re not designed for winter roads, Pszczolkowski said.

“The all-season is the Swiss Army knife of tires – it does everything fairly well but not one thing exceptionally well. Many of the M+S [tires] we’ve tested are atrocious in the snow, and I’m not talking about all of them,” he said. “Winter tires are designed to do one thing: operate in cold temperatures and dig into ice and snow to give the vehicle added traction. Owner satisfaction is very good.”

Ice braking

In Consumer Reports tests using a front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry, winter tires beat all-seasons in tests on snow and ice.

“We do ice braking on a skating rink where we stop from 10 miles per hour [16 kilometres an hour],” Pszczolkowski said. “We can’t go faster because we’re indoors and don’t have much room but, obviously, people are driving faster than that on roads.”

Even at that low speed, winter tires outperformed all-seasons, taking considerably less distance – an average of 1.8 metres – to come to a complete stop. At about half a car length, it could mean the difference between hitting the car in front of you and being able to stop in time.

Truthers, liars and the disadvantaged: The three groups who won’t buy winter tires

At normal driving speeds, a car with winter tires needs about 6.4 metres to stop compared with 12.1 metres for a car with all-season tires, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), an Ottawa-based not-for-profit focused on road safety.

Then, there’s traction. In Consumer Reports tests on a snowy track, the car with winter tires took an average of 18 metres to accelerate from a standstill to 32 kilometres an hour.

All-seasons took another six metres to reach that speed from a stop, because they didn’t have as much grip on the road.

“The downside [of winter tires] is that you can’t keep them on all year – they’re formulated with a soft rubber compound, and when it’s hot out, they’ll get really soft and wear faster,” Pszczolkowski said.

Soft on winter?

While winter tires have treads designed to grip ice and snow, their softer rubber is what makes them stick better to cold roads.

“Winter tires are made with a rubber compound that doesn’t stiffen quite as much as all-season tires do in cold weather,” said Lewis Smith, manager of special projects with the Canada Safety Council, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit. “This lets the tires maintain good traction on the road in weather below 7 degrees Celsius.”

The rubber in all-seasons begins to harden as it gets colder – which means they stick to ice about as well as a hockey puck.

“In less snowy places like Victoria, Vancouver and Abbotsford, all-season tires will typically be enough,” Smith said. “Where weather doesn’t often drop below 7 degrees, the returns from using winter tires are limited, and the softer rubber compound ends up getting worn more quickly.”

Why do we need winter tires now, but we didn’t a few decades ago?

In tests by Consumer Reports, winter tires generally don’t perform as well against all-seasons when there’s no snow or ice and it’s above freezing.

But even if you live in the small sliver of Canada that rarely sees snow, winter tires may still make sense if you’ll be driving to anywhere snowier.

“The first thing I say is ‘Do you go skiing a lot? Do ever have to drive in the snow?’” Pszczolkowski said. “Even if you have a big [Chevrolet] Tahoe with all-wheel-drive, that doesn’t mean it’s wonderful in the snow [on all-season tires]. It’s one thing to get up and go, but what about stopping and turning?”

All-weather option?

If you don’t want to switch tires twice a year, there’s another option: all-weather tires. They can stay on all year. They’re made of a rubber that’s softer than an all-season but not as soft as a winter tire.

In the Consumer Reports winter-acceleration test, all-weather tires took 20 metres to get going – 1.8 metres farther than winter tires, but 4 metres less than the all-seasons.

“All-weather tires are generally a hair more expensive than all-seasons, but you can save by having just one set of tires,” Pszczolkowski said. “But if you’ll be in hard-core winter conditions, there are still a lot of [safety] benefits from winter tires over all-weather tires.”

Most provinces don’t track whether a car has winter tires or all-seasons when it gets into a crash.

Since 2008, Quebec has required winter tires on all vehicles from Dec. 1 to March 15. It’s the only province that mandates them – although British Columbia requires either winter tires or all-seasons with the M+S symbol on certain mountain highways from Oct. 1 to April 30.

A 2011 study by Quebec’s transportation ministry showed a 5-per-cent reduction in winter road collisions and a 3-per-cent reduction in deaths and serious injuries after winter tires were required by law.

But when the law came into effect, 90 per cent of Quebeckers were already using winter tires.

Worth the cost?

If you get winter tires, Pszczolkowski recommends mounting them on their own rims – depending on the size, they could start at about $200 for a set of four – to make it easier, cheaper and faster, to swap them twice a year.

Also, if you switch to winter tires for five or six months every year, you’re extending the life of your all-seasons, Pszczolkowski said.

In a national survey released last week by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), a Cambridge, Ont.-based association of tire manufacturers, 82 per cent of respondents said winter tires were important despite rising living costs.

“With respect to cost … some tire dealers may be able to offer financing,” said Carol Hochu, TRAC chief executive officer. “And another consideration is that a lot of insurance companies will give you a discount.”

In addition to the premium discount, remember that the average auto insurance deductible is $500. If winter tires can prevent one crash, they have almost paid for themselves.

Outside of Quebec, where winter tires are required and usage is nearly 100 per cent, 63 per cent of respondents in the rest of Canada said they use winter tires. That varied by province – ranging from 74 per cent in Atlantic Canada to 54 per cent in Manitoba.

The top reason for not using winter tires? About 57 per cent of people who skip the annual switch say all-season tires are good enough. About a quarter blamed the cost of winter tires and a quarter said they don’t drive enough during the winter.

But even occasional trips on slick winter roads put you at risk for a crash, Hochu said.

“It only takes once,” she said. “We asked people who have winter tires if they believed they’ve saved them from a road accident and 76 per cent said yes.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated winter tires are required on all vehicles in Quebec between Dec. 15 and March 15. In fact, they are required between Dec. 1 and March 15.

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