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When to put on winter tires

By Brad Sherwin

In the closing days of 2007, the Province of Quebec passed a new road safety act that included a number of initiatives designed to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage on the province's highways. One aspect of the new legislation that has generated significant comment is the requirement that beginning in 2008 vehicles have a full set of winter tires when driven between November 15 and April 15.

The importance of winter tires in driver safety and security is well known by those of us in the auto industry. Indeed, there is a wide consensus among safety experts, police, car manufacturers and knowledgeable observers that the addition of four winter tires makes a real and measurable difference in handling, braking, directional stability and starting traction. Countless demonstrations have made believers out of anyone who witnessed a comparison, in winter conditions, between summer tires and winter tires, or even between all-season tires and winter tires.

Indeed, the rapid advance of new technologies recently introduced in winter tires has made that performance difference even greater. The science of tread design has certainly made a contribution, but it is the development of highly specialized compounds for winter tires that has made the most profound difference in performance.

In the case of the Yokohama Rubber Co., the introduction of new technologies has been driven by research that helped identify the danger zone when temperatures are between minus 6 degrees C and 0 degrees C - the temperature when a thin film of water forms between the tire and ice, and creates some of the most difficult driving conditions. That, in turn, prompted the development of features for dealing with that water like the shelled micro-bubbles and absorptive carbon flakes used in the compound of the new Yokohama Ice Guard IG 20 automobile winter tires, and the Yokohama Geolandar I/T G072 winter tires for light trucks and SUVs. Our competitors likely won't be too far behind with their own new features.

It is also increasingly well known that the purchase of winter tires does not represent a substantial increase in the cost of vehicle operation when measured over the total period of ownership. By switching to winter tires, owners are effectively extending the life of their summer or all-season tires; for every month the winter tire is in use, the tire it replaces is not suffering wear. If most owners keep their vehicles between 48 and 60 months, many would normally have to replace tires once during that period. A set of winter tires and a set of summer or all-season tires would be the equivalent of two sets of summer tires with the benefit of added safety and security.

That said, many Canadians have found that all-season tires suit their needs. Those who live in areas with moderate winters or who do limited winter driving have told us that all-season tires perform well in those conditions. While we still recommend winter tires for winter conditions, we certainly respect their choice.

Quebec is not the first jurisdiction to mandate winter tire use, of course. A number of countries in Europe like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Latvia already require the seasonal use of winter tires, while winter tires are mandatory on certain designated roads in countries like France, Austria and Italy. But it may surprise you to know that we do not expect a substantial increase in business as a result of Quebec's new law. It is important to point out that Quebec already has Canada's highest adoption rate for winter tires. Some estimates suggest 80% to 90% of Quebec drivers already employ winter tires, so the actual increase will be incremental to the industry's volumes. Still, we applaud any initiative to enhance road safety and know the improvement in overall safety will be welcome.

Finally, there is a new and growing factor in the discussion of the role of winter tires that we need to acknowledge: the environment.

It is an accepted fact that the salt used on roads in the winter has a serious - and cumulative - negative impact on our water supply. Thousands of tons of salt are used every year across the country to treat roads, and that salt eventually finds its way into our rivers, lakes and wetlands. The impact is very profound, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas where dissolved salts can harm fragile eco-systems.

Provinces and municipalities are struggling to address this issue. Part of the solution may lie in winter tires. Drivers who don't use winter tires rely on the provinces and municipalities to clear roads to bare condition so they can drive. In turn, provinces and municipalities have relied on salt to help create a road surface where drivers without winter tires have some minimal mobility.

If all drivers took the initiative to adopt winter tires, we could drastically reduce the use of salt on roads, and with it the damage salt does to the environment (not to mention roads, bridges and automobiles). Roads would still need to be plowed and sanded, but it would be a win-win situation: Improved safety for road users and reduced damage to the environment from excessive salting.

Much will be said and written in coming months about the new Quebec law. I hope our perspective helps illuminate the discussion. If you have any questions about this or any other tire issue, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Brad Sherwin is the marketing communications manager for Yokohama Tire (Canada) Inc. He can be reached at 604-464-6700 x1119. ©

Editor's note: Winter-rated tires can be identified by a snowflake symbol on the sidewall.

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