The clocks have gone back, the evenings are drawing in and the temperatures are dropping. There’s even been snow on the ground as far south as Lincolnshire. It’s that time of year once again; the time when all the tyre companies tell you that winter tyres are a necessity and we all need to switch to them right now.
Following on from the wettest summer in living memory, the long-range forecasts are suggesting we’re in for a long, cold winter.
That will get the tyre companies breathing a sigh of relief. If the harsh winter of 2010/11 convinced many that fitting winter tyres to their car would be a good idea, the relatively mild winter of 2011/12 convinced just as many that they’re an unnecessary expense.
Even the AA don’t recommend them outright, suggesting that it’s difficult to justify the expense on the grounds that temperatures and conditions are rarely experienced at the severity required to really see a benefit, and that many people simply choose not to drive when the white stuff falls from the sky.
Equally, despite now being officially out of recession, money is still tight in many places and the thought of spending £500 on a set of tyres just in case it gets a bit snowy is a thought most people won’t be having.
That goes some way to explaining why the winter tyre market accounts for just 2% of sales in the UK.
That’s in stark contrast to our European friends where the tyres are often compulsory. They’re mandatory at certain times of the year in Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden, and recommended in Andorra, Italy, Norway and Switzerland.
But we Brits are made of tougher stuff! We’ve survived for 117 years without winter tyres so why do we need them now?
The thing is, they actually work really well.
In the right conditions they offer you more grip, giving more control. Your car will feel more attached to the road as the tread blocks, grooves and sipes (the tiny grooves cut in to the main blocks of rubber) work harder than conventional tyres to grip the road surface.
On ice, stopping distances can be reduced by around 25%, or multiple car lengths even at low speeds. On snow there is a feeling of confidence as the tyres dig themselves in to the surface, reducing breakaway traction by some 65%.
But forget the preconceived idea that winter tyres only work in the snow. Yes, they’re particularly good when there’s a white blanket over the country, but the tyres are actually better in pretty much all conditions once the temperature gets below about seven degrees Celsius.
There’s a small variance between tyres, with softer compounds working well until a little lower, but as a general rule it’s at that point that the performance curves for ‘summer’ and winter tyres converge.
Even above that magic seven degrees, the winter tyres can hold an advantage in adverse conditions as they can shift far more water through their channels than conventional tyres manage.
In England the average high temperature is at or below that point for three months of the year, while the average minimum temperature hits it for an astonishing eight months of the year. Add Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the mix and the figures get chillier.
Only when it gets warmer do the winter tyres start to lose their appeal. They will still grip, they will still stop you quickly, but the tread blocks do move around more so the car will feel a little more vague. They will also wear more quickly as the tyres heat up with that movement.
However, it looks like winter tyres could offer a benefit for maybe six months of the year and not just when there’s blasts of arctic air coming down from the north, so why aren’t they mandatory here?
Logic dictates that if there are millions of cars on the road with winter tyres, all with drivers able to better control their cars, able to stop more quickly, able to keep moving up hills and so on, then there should surely be fewer accidents.
That will surely go some way to reducing the number of those killed or injured on our roads (that was 1,901 deaths last year, with 23,122 serious injuries) and should massively reduce repair bills for our vehicles, in turn reducing insurance costs.
That £500 figure for a set of tyres is also slightly misleading. By switching to winter tyres, your regular tyres will obviously last longer. The net cost over the lifetime of the tyres should be broadly similar, so there’s no real increase in costs.
Fitting winter tyres won’t ultimately add to your overall cost and will keep you and those around you safer than you might otherwise be for half the year.
So why aren’t they mandatory? You tell me.