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What you should know about driving on winter tires

A mechanic attaches a winter tire at a car in a Munich garage on October 24, 2012.

MICHAELA REHLE/REUTERS

I'm planning on getting winter tires this year for the first time. Do they feel different to drive on? Will I have to adjust my driving? – Jackie, Kelowna, B.C.

Once you slip winter tires on to your car, you'll have to get used to sliding less on the road. But that doesn't mean you're invincible.

"You could drive the exact same and you would be surprised at the stopping distance you have," said Angelo DiCicco, general manager with Young Drivers of Canada. "They may be a little bit noisier and they may feel a little bit clunkier around turns – but you should view that as being more sure-footed."

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Young Drivers did tests of five different types of tires on sheer ice, and the winter tire stopped four car lengths shorter, DiCicco said. "They're not magic, but they're close to magic," he said.

A quick refresher on winter tires: While treads vary depending on whether the tire is designed to be better in particular conditions – such as snow, ice or slush – winter tires made in the past decade are made with rubber that grips better on cold roads.

Unlike normal tires that get harder – and lose their grip on the road – when it gets colder than 7 degrees Celsius outside, the rubber in winter tires is designed to stay soft so tires can keep their gripping power to -40C.

"It's absolutely the single most important differentiation between today's winter tires and winter tires of yore," said Glenn Maidment, president of the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), an industry group representing tire manufacturers.

Even though winter tires help you stick better to roads, you should stick to being cautious, Maidment said.

"There's no difference in the way you drive – but what you don't want is for people to have overconfidence and think they can somehow test the limits of their driving and the vehicle," Maidment said. "They always need to drive to the condition of the roads – and if they do, they'll find that their steering is sharper, they'll have more control and better stopping distance."

If roads are especially icy, heavy with fresh snow – or if it's hard to see – that might mean driving below the speed limit, with or without winter tires.

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"You need to keep that extra degree of safety," DiCicco said. "You have to make a compromise when you buy winter tires and choose whether they're really good on snow, really good on ice or really good on slush – so your choice may not be perfect for that unexpected patch of black ice ahead."

Greater chance of getting rear-ended?

In TRAC's 2017 survey of winter tire use across Canada, 60 per cent of drivers outside Quebec – where winter tires are mandatory – said they're using winter tires.

While that's up from 35 per cent in 1998, it still means that even if you have winter tires, you'll be sharing the road with drivers who don't.

"I liken it to inoculation," Maidment said. "If everyone is inoculated, everyone is safe. If only two-thirds are, they're not."

In fact, because you'll be stopping shorter on winter tires than the driver behind you might expect, your chances of getting rear-ended are higher, DiCicco said.

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"The guy behind you may be cheap and doesn't understand that investing up front on winter tires will extend the life of his summer tires," DiCicco said. "And that means he can't stop as fast in his summer tires as you can in your winter tires– and he could hit you."

And it doesn't matter if that driver has all-wheel drive (AWD). It doesn't actually make cars safer on winter roads. It helps you get going faster in deep snow, but it won't help with stopping. In fact, cars with AWD tend to be heavier and might have more momentum – and take longer to stop – than cars without it.

That's why it's important to keep extra distance between your car and the car in front of you in the winter, period, DiCicco said.

How close should you be? It's tough to accurately judge metres or car lengths when you're driving, DiCicco said.

Instead, when the car in front of you drives past something – a street sign, shadow of an overpass or a bus shelter, say – count out the number of seconds until you pass it.

On perfect summer roads under ideal conditions ("it's sunny but not too sunny"), you should be following a minimum of two seconds behind the car in front of you at city speeds, three seconds at highway speeds and four seconds on entrance ramps, where cars often slow or stop suddenly, DiCicco said.

"In the winter, you want to add one second to each of those – so, three, four and five," DiCicco said. "Those extra seconds will help you mitigate the risk from the other drivers who don't have their winter tires on."

Even with that three seconds of distance in the city, when you're stopping at an intersection or slowing to turn, start slowing down early to give the driver behind you enough time to react and stop, DiCicco said.

"When you come to an amber light, you need to slow down earlier," DiCicco said. "Monitor your mirrors – because the guy behind you might be [sliding] toward you."

If you've left enough room in front of you, you can move ahead three or four metres to allow the car behind you to slide to a stop.

"You move up one space and everybody gets to go home safely," DiCicco said. "It isn't based on your performance or your abilities, which may be stellar – it's being a good neighbour and keeping that extra space for someone who screws up. And, hopefully, someone will do the same for you."

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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