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I live in Vancouver and drive to Kelowna to visit my family about once a month. I always thought that the Coquihalla and other British Columbia mountain roads require winter tires starting in October, but my dad says you’re allowed to drive on tires with the M+S (mud and snow) symbol. He doesn’t change his tires for the winter. I checked the all-season tires on my car and they do say M+S. Are they really enough to handle winter roads? – Leila

On most Canadian winter roads, that S won’t suffice, experts said.

“In Canada, there are far more situations that warrant winter tires than situations that don’t warrant them,” said Lewis Smith, manager of special projects with the Canada Safety Council (CSC).

Most all-season tires say M+S on the side. It stands for mud and snow, but that doesn’t mean they’re winter tires.

The biggest difference between winter tires and all-seasons is the rubber. All-season rubber starts to get hard when the temperature outside drops below 7 degrees Celsius.

It’s like driving on four hockey pucks – they’ll slide on the road instead of stick to it.

True winter tires, which also get called snow tires, come with a mountain snowflake symbol.

They’re made of a softer rubber so they have better traction at minus 30 degrees Celsius than all-seasons do at plus 4°C, said the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF).

They give better grip, braking and control on all cold winter roads, even if they’re clear of visible ice and snow.

On an icy road, a car with winter tires needs 6.4 metres to stop compared to 12.1 metres for a car with all-seasons.

“Plus, the treads on winter tires are generally designed to bite into the snow,” Smith said.

If you live somewhere, say B.C.’s lower mainland, where the temperature stays above zero for most of the winter and it doesn’t usually snow, you can probably stick to all-seasons, Smith said.

“If you don’t drive much, or generally stick to straight, flat and regularly-cleared stretches of road, you may not see much benefit to making the change,” Smith said. “Generally speaking, though, winter tires will be more effective in harsher temperatures and more snow.”

There are also all-weather tires, which also have the mountain snowflake symbol.

They’re a compromise. They’re made of a rubber that’s softer than all-seasons but harder than winter tires and are meant to stay on all year.

Winter roads not for snowflakes?

Quebec is the only province that requires winter tires for most drivers.

In B.C., either winter tires or all-seasons with M+S are required on most highways from Oct. 1 to April 30.

Those mountain highways aren’t straight or flat and often see huge dumps of snow.

How many crashes do winter tires prevent? Most provinces don’t track whether cars had winter tires in a crash, so it’s tough to tell.

A 2011 Quebec study 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 mandated. But by the time that law came in, 90 per cent of Quebeckers were already using winter tires.

In a new study by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada, which represents the tire industry, 79 per cent of people using winter tires said they helped them avoid a crash.

But many Canadians still don’t think we need them, Smith said.

“Unsurprisingly, the most common reason provided for not owning winter tires was all-season tires being seen as ‘good enough,’” Smith said.

In that survey, 100 per cent of Quebec drivers said they put winter tires on their cars. But outside Quebec, only 69 per cent said they used winter tires.

Among the other provinces, the Atlantic provinces saw the most people with winter tires – 92 per cent. Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the lowest, with 50 per cent.

“Unsurprisingly, the most common reason provided for not owning winter tires was all-season tires being seen as ‘good enough,’” Smith said.

In last year’s survey, 65 per cent of Canadians said they would drive less in the winter because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, only 37 per cent said would be driving less.

People are shopping earlier for winter tires this fall “because they’ve experienced shortages of other consumer goods,” said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA).

“So far, there is no equivalent to the production shortages that have decimated new vehicle inventories,” Iny said. “The drop in new vehicle deliveries and last winter’s reduced driving due to COVID-19 restrictions have reduced the demand for both new and replacement winter tires.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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