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Ever Wonder About Winter Tires?

I was getting my winter tires swapped recently and I wondered whether I really needed them in the Lower Mainland of BC, where we like to gloat to the rest of Canada about the mildness of our winters. After all, it hardly ever snows here. It turns out I hadn’t taken into account the importance of temperature, not just snow. 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Rubber is best known for being rubbery, which allows a tire to stick to the tiny imperfections in the road's surface. But below the glass transition point, rubber becomes hard, more like glass. If you’ve ever seen the Cold Show at Science World, you may have seen how even pliable rubber tubing can shatter upon impact after immersion in very cold liquid nitrogen. Based on this idea, hockey pucks are often frozen so they slide better. To give a good example of how dangerous this phenomena can be, Richard Feynman found out rubber O rings don’t do their job when they’re too cold, which contributed to the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

So-called all-season tires do not shatter below about 7 Celsius (45F), but they become somewhat less effective. Canadian Tire experimented with a white-walled tire that would turn blue when it got too cold—I guess for people who don't believe the weather reports. Even Vancouver has a monthly average temperature below 7 C, from November to March. “All-season” must refer to people who fly south for the winter. Apparently they are now, more honestly, called 3-season tires. More recent all-weather tires are supposed to be okay for some snow. If you are looking into tires, then you might consider those. For now, I will stick with my winter tires without studs (which wreck roads).

Various types of rubber, both natural and synthetic, go into making a tire. This about half of a tire's total weight. Each company has its own secret concoctions involving many different chemicals. Winter tires are made of rubber that remains flexible at lower temperatures, providing better traction. Premium, i.e., more expensive, tires tend to have better rubber.

Tread On Me

The deeper treads on winter tires can bite into snow at first and then allow snow to accumulate. I would have thought that was not a good thing, but snow to snow friction actually helps with traction. Then the treads can clear themselves of snow as they roll. The weight of vehicle on the snow creates a thin layer of water and the smaller cuts in the tire surface called sipes help grip the road and channel water away from the contact surface. All-seasons don't have as many because they tend to cause the tire to warm up more.

Straight and Narrow

In addition to the surface properties of both the road and the tire, traction depends on the amount of force the tire exerts on the road. A narrower tire, increases the weight per unit of area, which I didn’t think about back when I bought my tires.

No So Fast

Even with proper tires, you still need to drive carefully and more slowly under poor weather conditions. Speed affects the amount of friction between the road and the tire. At slower speeds, when the tire is not slipping, it is exerting static friction. Anti-lock brakes allow the wheels to rotate instead of locking so it improves control. When the tire spins faster, it can slide and this dynamic friction is lower, which is not a good thing.

What's Driving You?

All the four-wheel drive vehicles on the road these days might make you think you don't have to worry about the snow. But all-wheel drive is helpful only with acceleration (so you’re less likely to get stuck). It is not helpful with stopping or turning, which depends mostly on the tires.

On All Fours

Speaking of four wheels, you might think you only need two winter tires, to be more economical. But this unevenness in friction will make the car more difficult to control. Penny wise, pound foolish.

Wearing Out Their Welcome

Despite the benefits of the winter tires during the winter, you should take them off before it gets too warm because they can hinder the car’s performance in drier, warm weather and the softer rubber will wear out more quickly.

Drive Home Message

So if you drive in Canada, don’t rely on all-season or summer tires over the winter, even if you are in the Lower Mainland. If seeing is believing for you, check out this video comparing tires on custom made tricycles in an ice rink. If changing and storing tires is a problem, you might be able to get by with all weather tires. If money is the main issue, you could compare the cost of winter tires with the insurance deductible you’ll have to pay in the event of an accident. Of course, you could also just find other cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly ways to get around.

Still curious? Find out what happens when you get an MRI and how your brain works out metaphors.