Give wintry roads the slip

Seasonal tyres aren't just for ice and snow - they give extra grip in the wet too, writes James Ruppert
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Indy Lifestyle Online

People usually dress for the weather. So it seems odd that we don't change the most important part of our cars when the weather gets nippy, namely the tyres. After all, they are the four most important parts of your car and the only contact with the road.

People usually dress for the weather. So it seems odd that we don't change the most important part of our cars when the weather gets nippy, namely the tyres. After all, they are the four most important parts of your car and the only contact with the road.

Research by Continental, the tyre maker, found that 75 per cent of people would not even consider fitting winter tyres. It's odd because drivers are five times more likely to skid on snow or icy roads than they are on dry roads. The number of accidents caused by wet roads increases in winter by 267 per cent. There are 6,393 more accidents involving cars on UK roads in winter than there are in summer. Thirty-one per cent of people have had a particularly bad experience while driving due to winter weather conditions and 60 per cent of people feel scared or uneasy when driving in winter conditions.

The number of drivers in the UK who swap warm weather tyres for winter ones every autumn is minimal. Ian Hughes, a spokesman for Michelin, says, "We don't actively market a winter tyre in the UK. In years gone by, fleet buyers would buy them for vans to cope with mud rather than snow, but apart from areas of Scotland the UK market is almost non-existent. It is a challenge to get consumers to put air in them and check them."

That means the range of Michelin Pilot Alpin will be in very limited supply over here. In Europe, it is very different, not least because in some countries it can be compulsory to be shod with winter tyres in certain conditions or during specific periods. That could result in insurers offering reduced premiums to people who choose winter tyres. Especially as 48 per cent of all accident claims are made during the autumn and winter months. In Germany, a driver involved in an accident could be negligent in the eyes of insurers if their vehicle was not using appropriate tyres. So what's so special about winter tyres?

They can considerably increase safety - the key factor being significantly shorter braking distances. On ice, specialist winter tyres have an 11-metre braking distance advantage on standard tyres; in snow, they give an 8m advantage; and, on cold, wet roads, they give a 5m advantage. Made using silica-compound technology, winter tyres retain the elasticity required in temperatures under 7°C. The more compliant winter compound has a large proportion of natural rubber, helping prevent molecules from freezing and giving the tyre the extra grip they need to hold the road in cold, wet and icy conditions.

Design is also important. Dutch tyre company Vredestein has a Wintrac range. Its main feature is the V-shape in the tread, which is positioned off the centre of the running surface. This makes driving quiet and comfortable, even at higher speeds. There are also straight strips for optimum grip on wet and slippery roads and broad shoulder blocks providing more stability on bends. There are also broad, longitudinal grooves combined with tilted tread blocks, to ensure better dispersement of water, snow and mud.

For its winter tyre, the SP Winter Sport M3, Dunlop avoided branches in the tread structure and, instead, built small guide steps into the base. This discharges water even quicker and with less turbulence from the contact patch on wet roads. As a result, this directional-tread tyre does not start to "float" on standing water anywhere near as fast.

Stuart Wyss, the product planning manager for Dunlop, says, "Our task was to design a tyre that optimised the construction, tread pattern and mix to such an extent that it would satisfy the highest standards on wet conditions. We succeeded in minimising a classic conflict of objectives."

Roger Sanders, safety spokesman at Continental, says: "Developments in tyre technology mean we can offer specialist tyres to cater for different seasonal conditions. Sensible walkers wouldn't wear sandals to walk on ice and snow, so sensible drivers should make sure their car's footwear is also suited to the prevailing conditions."

But getting hold of winter tyres can be a challenge - etyres.co.uk had Toyo Snowprox for £52.50 and the Vredestein Snowtrac 2s were £74.90. Next day delivery for most tyres wasn't bad.

The obsessive-compulsive side of my nature would like to swap wheels each winter. But few drivers will even consider winter tyres. Barring a change in the law, the best we can hope for is a change in driving style. Slowing, braking and steering smoothly can all make a big difference in ice and snow.

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