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Time for that annual debate: winter tires or all-seasons?

Passerby try to help a vehicle stuck on a barrier in Toronto in this 2007 photo.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This is Canada. We pride ourselves on being able to survive the most miserable winters anywhere. We giggle (to ourselves, politely) at tourists wearing down jackets before the Christmas decorations are in stores.

Some of us still think winter tires are for snowflakes, so the annual debate has begun in many of the country's major metropolitan areas: Are winter tires really necessary?

"We've heard everything from 'The company is just trying to sell more tires' to 'I don't need them because I have all-wheel drive,' " said Michelin Canada driving expert Carl Nadeau.

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Nobody's really sure how many of us use winter tires – surveys vary. In a 2016 Michelin survey of drivers in Ontario, 43 per cent did not own winter tires – tires with the mountain snowflake symbol on the side – and 50 per cent thought all-season tires were just fine for Canadian roads. In a nationwide survey that same year by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), about 68 per cent of Canadians said they use them – almost twice as many as two decades ago. The TRAC survey reported use was 100 per cent in Quebec, where winter tires are required by law from Dec. 15 to March 15. But use generally decreased from east (80 per cent in the Maritimes) to west (49 per cent in British Columbia).

"The tire industry invented this idea of the all-season, and people said, 'Great, I don't have to buy extra stuff in the winter,' " said Geoff Wiebe, a Regina-based tire expert for Kal Tire. "All-seasons say M+S [mud and snow] on the side but really don't hold up on snow and ice when we test. We call them three-season tires."

The 7-degree solution?

Starting at 7 C, the rubber in all-seasons starts to get harder – like a hockey puck – and that means they lose grip and start sliding.

"It's perhaps even harder than it used to be. A lot of the all-season tires now are promoted as being long-lasting – up to 130,000 kilometres," said Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs with the Canada Safety Council. "To do that, and to improve fuel economy, the rubber needs to be harder."

While winter tires have biting edges to grip on snow and ice, the real difference is the rubber. They are made of a softer compound that is supposed to stick better to cold roads – and stay supple down to minus-40 C.

"People often buy winter tires because they want a tire to help them get going, so they don't get stuck," said Gene Petersen, head of tire testing for Consumer Reports. "But it's equally important to maintain control and stop – and that's where winter tires really stand out."

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While some all-seasons are getting better on snow and ice, Consumer Reports tests show that winter tires deliver better grip on snow and ice.

"In our tests, they all do the job – they all do what they've claimed," Petersen said. "It's one of the few products people buy that they're entirely satisfied with."

In Consumer Reports tests, winter tires stopped six feet (1.8 metres) shorter, on average, than all-seasons on ice. And winter tires required a shorter distance – 22 feet (6.7 metres) less than all-seasons – to accelerate from five to 20 miles per hour (eight to 32 km/h) on moderately packed snow. In Kal Tire tests conducted by an independent firm, winter tires stopped more than six metres shorter on loose snow and almost nine metres shorter on icy conditions at 30 km/h.

And all-wheel drive doesn't make a difference in stopping – in fact, heavier all-wheel-drive vehicles can take even longer than a two-wheel-drive vehicle to stop on all-seasons.

"All-wheel drive is a performance feature, not a safety feature, and it has nothing to do with braking and cornering," Nadeau said. "With all-wheel drive you can accelerate pretty good on snow from a stoplight, but when you have to stop, physics always wins."

So why don't we just keep winter tires on all year? Because in warmer weather, the softer rubber wears faster and they can take longer to stop.

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"All tires seem to be some sort of compromise," Petersen said. "They don't have the same stopping ability on wet and dry roads."

There is also a newer category – all-weather tires – which are made of a harder rubber than winter tires and are designed to be left on all year.

"We've only tested two. They do in fact provide pretty good winter traction," Petersen said. "But there is some compromise in terms of dry and wet grip."

Should all Canadians be in winter tires?

Tire companies now urge Canadians to put on winter tires when the temperature hits 7 C. In most of Canada, that tends to be in October. That means you're not only ready for the first snowfall, you're avoiding lineups – and a limited supply of winter tires – at the tire store.

"If you wait until the first snow, you might not be able to find tires," Kal Tire's Wiebe said.

But does everybody, everywhere, need to put on winter tires?

"I look at it this way: If you live in an area where it doesn't snow a lot, you can probably get away with a good set of all-season tires," Petersen said. "Or if you have the kind of job where you can sit at home and wait for the snow plow to come around."

But that's not most of Canada. And even though Vancouver has had snowless winters, last season it saw almost 70 centimetres – with nearby Abbotsford getting more than 128 cm.

"Vancouver has ice, and almost anywhere you drive outside Vancouver other than due south has big weather," said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association . "People in Vancouver and Calgary rely on all-wheel drive for winter, often eking out three or four winters on their original tires if they're leasing. Winter traction will be acceptable for accelerating, but they're unaware of how much braking and steering have degraded since the tires were new."

At the end of the day, "people have to use their heads," Marchand said.

"I used to live in Victoria, and when there was snow, people couldn't go anywhere," he said. "There's no question that winter tires provide better traction in cold weather."

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