All-season tires are a balance between tread life, ride quality, fuel economy and traction. But tires that grip the road in summer don’t always offer the same traction when the weather turns cold. In fact, the tread compound used in all-season tires offers little cold weather traction and becomes hard, losing pliability and traction in freezing temperatures. Winter or snow tires, however, are designed to help deliver better safety and control in snow, slush, rain, ice and cold weather. A good comparison for difference between all-season and winter tires is similar to tennis shoes to snow boots. While it’s possible to walk down a slick, snow-covered sidewalk wearing tennis shoes, it's usually easier and safer to do so with snow boots.
Winter Tire Technology
Winter tires have a soft rubber compound that remains flexible as temperatures drop to better conform to the road for more controlled handling. They also have tread patterns with wider grooves to enhance traction on snow and ice by providing channels to drain water and expel snow. Typically, they have deep sipes, which are small slits in the tread that help cut through water and slush, avoiding hydroplaning and improving grip. Grip is critical, not just to avoid getting stuck, but to help ensure that the car can stop and steer.
Why Four is Better Than Two
Always install winter tires in a matching set of four to help maintain balance and control while in winter driving conditions. Using just two winter tires on a vehicle creates a mismatch in traction that can have serious consequences. With front-wheel-drive, putting snow tires on the front only will result in the back wheels not having as much grip as the front wheels. This will make the car much more likely to spin out while braking or cornering. With snow tires on the just back wheels of a rear-wheel-drive car, the front wheels won't grip as well as those that provide the power, so the car may not respond when the steering wheel is turned -- it will simply plow straight ahead (understeer).
Winter Air Pressure
Maintaining correct air pressure is a requirement for good handling, traction and durability. The fall and early winter months are the most important times to check inflation pressures since air contracts as temperatures get colder. For every 10 degrees (°C) change in outside temperature, tire inflation pressure will change by about one psi (up with higher and down with lower temperatures). And don't forget to keep the valve caps on! If left off, moisture can freeze in the valve allowing air to escape.
Identifying Winter Tires
Tires that meet severe snow standards display a snowflake symbol on the tire’s sidewall. This symbol helps set winter tires apart from standard mud-and-snow rated and all-season tires.
You Hold the Key to Safe Winter Driving
Finally, slow, careful driving is always the best plan in wintry conditions. One of the best actions a driver can take to maximize traction, grip and braking performance in winter conditions is to install tires specifically designed for winter driving. They can enhance control, provide the traction needed to navigate snowy roads and handle unexpected stops.