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winter driving

As sure as there will be chestnuts roasting on exposed flames and bells jingling all the way to wherever it is they are going, this time of year bring inches upon inches of snow to the driveways of Canadians nation wide. More important than how much snow is on your driveway is how much snow is on the roads? And even more important still is what type of tires are on your car.

I know that a lot of column inches have been dedicated to the importance of having snow tires for the winter season. And I don't mean to drone on in a repetitive fashion, but obviously the message has not reached everyone. The results of a 2008 RBC insurance survey show that only 57 per cent of Canadians were using winter tires during the frigid months.

The question is, why?

Tires are the most important part of a car. Period. When they are good, they can make an average car drive like a dream. When they are bad, they can make a supercar handle like a tuna boat. And when they are not suited to the weather conditions you might as well put on a crash test dummy mask and prepare to become a statistic.

When the winter weather hits having the right tires is crucial. You don't go skiing in stilettos and you shouldn't drive in snow on anything other than snow tires. "But James, I have all season tires", you might say. Good for you. I have a gold fish, and that is about as helpful to driving safer in the snow as your all seasons.

When I think of all-season tires, I think of the old saying "Jack of all trades, Master of none." They are made to deal with a wide range of different conditions, meaning they aren't perfectly suited to any one condition. In Canada we experience, love it or hate it, four very distinct seasons that push the extremes on both ends of the thermometer. Our winters are simply too harsh to risk anything but snow tires.

I have spent a large part of my life stressing over tires. For the same reason they are important on your road car - being the only part that touches the ground - they are critical in getting the most out of a racecar. The difference of one PSI, or a swing of five degrees, can make a phenomenal difference in performance on the track. Granted that is when I am pushing the tires to the very limit, but in tricky winter conditions the limit is reduced greatly, so even a simple trek to the grocery store could become a task fit for an Andretti.

The compound of an all season tire is outside its ideal operating range when the mercury hits somewhere around 5ºC and is pretty much useless below zero. Since it's common to see temperatures drop below -10ºC, you risk driving around with tires as hard as hockey pucks and having very little control of your car. And that is with the road dry! Throw in snow, sleet, slush and ice and your all seasons are about as effective as using a cinder block as a bowling ball.

Winter tires have a softer compound that allows them to be soft and compliant in much colder environments. Add in a traditionally narrower track - this concentrates the weight of the car onto a smaller contact patch to help push into snow and generate more grip - and deeper tread channels for cutting through snow, and the performance advantage can't be denied. Winter tires can decrease stopping distances from anywhere from 10 to 20 metres, depending on the type of vehicle. In a split second situation that could mean the difference between stopping safely and feng shui-ing the rear end of the Civic in front of you.

The money you spend on snow tires (and another set of rims to go with them is advised) will be paid back 10-fold with avoided accidents. Not only do you not have to pay to fix your car, you insurance premiums won't increase and you will replace your '3-seasons' less frequently since they won't be used for about 4 months of the year. You're pretty much making money is this deal. You won't get stuck as often and that will invariably save you time and frost bitten fingers after digging your car out.

But if you are going to do it, do it right. I have heard of people putting snow tires on only the drive wheels of the car. That is like putting a water ski on your left foot, a Croc on your right and being towed behind a boat. Doesn't sound very wise, does it? Well neither is putting only two snow tires on your car. That will improve the grip on only one end of the car, significantly changing the balance in handling and making the car very difficult to control.

Take it from me, as someone who has had years of experience putting cars on the edge of out of control and bringing them back. You couldn't pay me to drive a car this winter without snow tires, never mind be a passenger in one. Give yourself a gift this holiday season. I know money is tight, but this is an investment in your safety that has 100 per cent of paying dividends. I like those odds.

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