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weather woes

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I spent a day last week driving hard on ice-covered roads with a guy who has a PhD from MIT and spends his life designing tires. I also had a good chat with a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame who has the most wins in Canadian road-racing history, including an Ice Racing championship.

These guys made me think a little differently about winter driving and about the tires we use for that purpose.

The tire guy is Forrest Patterson, technical director, North American passenger car/light truck tires at Michelin; the race car driver is Richard Spenard, who needs no further introduction.

Patterson told me about things like tear-drop-shaped cross Z sipes, which are thin slits in a tire surface to improve traction in wet or icy conditions, and about designing the right kind of block edges to cut into frozen stuff and about micro-pumps that push water and slush out of the way.

Spenard talked about the fact that most Canadians don't seem to know that winter driving isn't just about snow – it's about cold temperatures. As one of the majority of Ontario drivers who does not own a set of winter tires, I came away wondering why I'm missing out on new tire technology.

Let's start with Spenard and his point about temperature and tires. Winter tires, he argues, aren't just for getting through snow banks. Modern winter tires use rubber compounds that stay flexible even at sub-zero temperatures.

"Seven degrees Celsius is the temperature where all-season tires begin to lose grip even on dry pavement," said Spenard. "Winter tires are necessary to help maintain your car's manoeuvrability in the cold."

He also says people who own winter tires often put them on too late. "Put them on in October," he says.

Spenard tells people not to believe that electronic aids like stability and traction control systems will save them in winter. "If the tires have no grip, all the electronics in the world aren't going to do a thing for you."

Patterson, who lists engineering degrees from Berkeley, Stanford and MIT, has lead the development of the third generation of the Michelin X-Ice tire. It won't go on sale for another six months but we were running it through obstacle courses on glare ice at a track in Quebec. "These tires give you complete confidence while driving in any winter conditions," he says.

Patterson holds several patents for tire design and he doesn't criticize his competitors. "There are a number of excellent winter tires on the market," he says. "They're excellent when they're new. Our tires maintain quality performance and appearance through the life of the tire."

Ice- and snow-covered roads like the ones we were driving only give about 10 per cent of the grip or adhesion a dry road provides, so braking distances even on great tires will be around 10 times longer than on a dry road.

If you're going too fast for the conditions nothing may save you. But the thing that surprised me about my day at the wheel was just how quickly conditions could go from bad to worse. Slightly colder made ice much slicker and faster. Finding a little snow made icy stopping distances much shorter. "Drive on the white stuff, not the glossy stuff," shouted one instructor.

I found you have to be good at reading the road. Judge the conditions constantly and adjust your speed and following distance. Don't stare at the vehicle directly in front, look well ahead. And be smooth with the controls. Lots of accidents happen because a driver gets on ice, tenses up, over-compensates with the steering wheel and loses control.

Training and tires can save a lot of accidents. I've been feeling quite smug this winter because my "all-season" tires have barely seen snow or really cold temperatures. According to a recent poll, 56 per cent of Ontarians are like me and run without winter tires. After the demonstration I had, I'm going over to the other side.