As the weather gets ever worse as we head into the Christmas period and the depths of the coldest season beyond, it’s time to start thinking about potentially fitting winter tyres to your car. But what are they, and do you need them?
Do I have to fit winter tyres?
There is no law in Ireland which says you must fit winter tyres at this time of the year, so you’re not mandated to do it – but, at the time of writing, 20 countries across northern, central and eastern Europe (this number also includes outlying Iceland) all have such legislation in place. And they include territories situated much further south than us, including Bulgaria, Romania and – surprisingly – Italy; the law there will relate mainly to the northern part of the country, where it fringes into the Alps.
So while you can stay on ‘summer’ tyres throughout the year if you so wish in Ireland, it seems advisable to think seriously about fitting winter tyres for the worst of the season’s weather, given a lot of our continental neighbours consider it an essential switch.
What are winter tyres?
They are made of a different, softer compound of rubber to normal summer tyres, while they also have much deeper grooves and cuts (these are called sipes, they are much shallower than the main grooves and are designed to disperse snow and water better) in their tread pattern. Winter tyres are massively more effective in temperatures below seven degrees Centigrade (45 degrees Fahrenheit), where they provide more grip and control in slushy, very cold and even sub-zero conditions. For instance, your stopping distance on snow or ice-cold, low-grip roads is much shorter in a car fitted with winter tyres than it is on summer ones.
You can identify winter tyres because they have two clear, industry-standard markers on their sidewalls – the bits that face outwards on the tyres – to denote their special status. These are the letters ‘M+S’, for mud and snow, and the three-peak mountain snowflake emblem. Bear in mind that you can find tyres with just the M+S marking, and not the other emblem, and this indicates that the tyre hasn’t been officially tested to work in colder conditions. Therefore, it’s best (if you want proper winter tyres) to look for the mountain snowflake emblem logo primarily.
Are winter tyres expensive?
It will depend on the size of the wheels fitted to your vehicle already, as well as which brand you choose, as to their exact cost. But bear in mind there’s an added benefit that, if you’re switching between summer and winter tyres according to the conditions, then you are splitting the accumulated tyre wear between both sets. Which’ll mean that your primary set (summer) will last longer and need replacing less often, ultimately offsetting the purchase cost of the winter tyres.
Should I change them onto my existing wheels?
You absolutely can do, but a better idea – given the vagaries of our winter weather – is to invest in a set of cheap secondary wheels dedicated wholly to wearing the winter tyres. In Europe, owners tend to pick thin steel wheels for this purpose, which is odd when you’re driving round Germany and you see a big BMW 7 Series, for instance, rolling around on incredibly narrow and black-painted steel rims.
But the idea behind this ‘two sets of wheels’ trick is that temperature threshold we’ve already mentioned. Although we do get poor weather and sometimes snow in this country from November through to March, we also know the mercury can sometimes climb higher and days can be quite mild. And if seven degrees Centigrade is exceeded, then the effectiveness of winter tyres drastically reduces – so you should go back onto summer tyres.
As you can see, this means that if you have just one set of wheels, then you’re going to have to keep visiting a professional tyre-fitting outlet to have the two types of tyres switched over a lot if the weather keeps flitting from one winter extreme to the other, incurring you lots of expense. Whereas, if you buy a secondary set of wheels, you can just bolt the summer wheel-and-tyre combination onto the car when needed, and vice versa if the temperature plummets again the next day.
We’re well aware that many people will not have access to a garage or shed (or similar) where they can store a secondary set of wheels and tyres, and many others won’t be bothered with constantly changing the tyres depending on the weather either.
Will fitting winter tyres reduce my insurance costs?
Regrettably, it won’t reduce your premium – but what it will do is make you less at risk of having an embarrassing winter bump in your car if the weather suddenly turns foul. And that, in turn, could prevent nasty rises in your premiums when it comes to renewal time.
Are there any alternatives to winter tyres?
There are, including more dedicated cold-weather tyres rated as ‘Ice’ and even studded tyres. Remember, though, general winter tyres work better in temperatures that are below seven degrees Centigrade, regardless of whether there is any snow or ice on the roads or not – so it could be very cold, but very dry on the road surface, and they will still operate at their best for you. Whereas Ice tyres are specifically designed only to work on deeply compacted snow and ice, as you might find in Scandinavia, while studded tyres – which feature metal pins moulded into the tyre treads – offer amazing grip but cannot be used if there is no snow or ice on the road surface because they will damage the tarmac; again, studded tyres are best reserved for the coldest, most regularly winter-snowbound countries.
The same could be said for detachable traction aids, such as snow socks and snow chains. Both of these are designed to slip over your existing tyres and offer more traction/grip in bad conditions, without the need for a full separate set of winter tyres. But again, both of these devices are designed to work best when there’s actual snow lying deep on the road, while the authorities will probably take a dim view of you driving on cold but dry, snow-free roads with a set of snow chains fitted to your wheels – because that will damage the road surface and make your car less safe in terms of handling.
Finally, it’s also worth looking into all-season tyres that are claimed to offer a good compromise between full-on winter tyres and regular summer tyres.
Are there any more tips you can offer?
Yes, do not mix-and-match summer and winter tyres. So if you know, for example, that your car is front-wheel drive, and you think you can get away with just fitting winter tyres on the driven axle, that’s a really bad idea – you will have completely different grip levels on your two axles, which could lead to understeer or oversteer situations and, potentially, a crash. You must fit four winter tyres at once, or four summer tyres at once, and nothing in between.
Also, if you’ve ever heard people justify having a four-wheel-drive vehicle because they need it for the winter, ask them if they’ve fitted all-season or winter tyres onto it. This is because if you drive a heavy, powerful SUV equipped with all-wheel drive, but it’s on summer-oriented performance tyres, it will be far less effective in truly wintry driving conditions than a two-wheel-drive car fitted with proper winter tyres. While the added traction is advantageous in an all-wheel-drive vehicle, it is as much grip as you can muster that you need in freezing conditions, and it is that which winter tyres provide in abundance. Not only that, but winter tyres help with turning and braking, too, which four-wheel drive does not.