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When should I switch over to winter tires?

There are commercials saying to put on winter tires once it's colder than 7C. That's now, some days. But it hasn't snowed or frozen yet, so do I really need them yet? If I put them on now and then it warms up for a few days, is it unsafe? – Dan, Ottawa.

It's safe to put your winter tires on while Pumpkin Spice lattes are still in stores – but the longer they drive on warm roads, the faster they'll wear out, says the Tire and  Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC).

"There is nothing wrong with getting a head start and putting them on in, say, October," says Carolyn Goard, communications manager with the TRAC, which represents Canadian tire manufacturers and importers. "Many people are pro-active about getting their winter tires on a bit earlier so that they are prepared when the first big snow comes."

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Goard recommends you put on winter tires about two weeks before snow's expected, so you're ready.

"The industry has actually shied away from calling winter tires snow tires," Goard says. "Really, we are trying to refer to them as cold-weather tires because they perform best in the winter months in all cold-weather road conditions."

Tires and tribulations

The rubber in all-season tires starts to harden – think hockey puck – when the temperature drops below 7C. The harder it gets, the less traction tires have. Winter tires are made with rubber that stays softer in the cold. They also have treads designed to grip ice and snow.

"If your vehicle is wearing winter tires in the summer, or year-round, they are going to wear out a heck of a lot quicker because they are not manufactured to be used during the months other than the winter months," Goard says in an e-mail.

Only two provinces require winter tires. Quebec requires all cars to use winter tires – with the mountain snowflake symbol – between Dec. 15 and March 15. And British Columbia requires winter tires – with the mountain snowflake or with the M+S (mud and snow) symbol – on most highways between Oct. 1 and April 30.

How do winter tires perform when it's well above 7C? In tests by Consumer Reports, winter tires beat all-seasons in braking on snow and ice. But, they didn't brake as well as all-seasons when it was warm out.

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In comparison tests between all-seasons and winter tires in normal temperatures, it took winter tires an average of 7 metres further to stop from 96.5 km/h on a dry track. On a wet track, it took winter tires 9.4 metres further to stop.

If you live in parts of Canada that don't see much snow, Goard says to check with your tire store to see what they recommend.

Whenever you install your winter tires, it's best to put them on all four wheels, says the TRAC and Transport Canada. If you don't, your front and back wheels won't have the same traction and you could lose control.

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