Experts say snow tires still safest bet for winter driving
Snow tires often receive formidable names.
This fall, rubber warriors “Blizzak,” “Winterforce,” “Graspic” “X-Ice” and “Snowsport” are prepared for ground battles in December, January and February.
Safety, automotive and law-enforcement personnel may not be wowed by the names, but are impressed with their performances. Snow tires, they say, are best bets for safe driving through winter months.
“You can get by without them, if you want to be the guy doing five miles an hour all the way home,” said Eric Mohr, co-owner of Mohr’s Service Center in Saratoga Springs. “You’ll probably be all right.”
Automotive experts say snow tires are designed with tread patterns that bite into snow and ice, and keep a better grip on slippery surfaces. They are also manufactured from softer rubber compounds than their all-season counterparts, compounds that retain flexibility in cold weather.
While some motorists believe all-season tires are enough to carry them through the winter months, the experts say harder rubber components do not conform to pavements as well in low temperatures.
It’s all about traction
Mohr sees an investment in the deeper treads and softer rubber compounds as an insurance policy. People may forget all about their snows when skies and streets are clear but are glad they’ve got tires specifically designed for winter when they run into snowy conditions.
Eric Stigberg, public-affairs manager for AAA Northway (formerly the American Automotive Association), recommends drivers equip their vehicles with four snow tires — not just two.
“They really do make a difference,” Stigberg said. “It’s all about how the rubber hits the road and it’s about traction. They offer more traction than all-season tires. It only takes one slip off the road to realize that extra expense is probably a really good idea.”
The expense can be considerable. Skip Smith, owner of Smith’s Automotive in Schenectady, said each snow tire can cost around $140. If people are investing in new aluminum alloy wheels for their snows, that can cost another $100 each. And because many newer model cars are equipped with pressure monitoring systems, all new wheels need $80 tire pressure sensors.
“There are a hard sell in some cases, especially with the winters we’ve had, but people who like them definitely use them and repeat buy them,” Smith said. “It’s not the money for the tire so much, it’s the time and money to change them over winter to summer, especially if you don’t have spare wheels.”
Studded tires are options for some people who must drive in areas that receive regular — and copious — snowfalls. According to New York state vehicle and traffic law, studded tires may be used from Oct. 16 through April 30.
“They are noisier and some people don’t like the noise,” Smith said. “There are a lot of new and improved rubber compounds that work well on ice without studs. They claim to have the same gripping power without a stud.”
Ready for rapid changes
Snow tires will provide improved traction and stopping ability, Smith said. He added they can be important accessories if people are making daily trips to the Capital Region from the Lake George and Great Sacandaga Lake areas.
State police Sgt. Dan Larkin, traffic supervisor for Troop G — which covers 91⁄2 counties in northeastern New York — believes most people do not need studded tires unless they live in hilly areas.
“But snow tires? Absolutely,” he said. “The only thing better than snow tires is just to slow down; that is always the major contributing factor [for accidents] when we get the inclement weather, the snow- and ice-covered roads.”
Larkin has heard about positions some coin-conscious drivers might take. They say past winters in the Capital Region have included just a few days of stormy weather and relatively small amounts of snowfall — so maybe snow tires are not worth the investment.
“I think the argument against snows because we haven’t had heavy winters is not a good one,” he said. “I absolutely would encourage people who have the resources to get snows on their cars.”
Larkin said drivers can use snow tires in areas where there are significant changes in elevation in relatively short distances. People on winter trips from Glens Falls north to Warrensburg can see changes on wintry days. The Adirondack Northway, Interstate 88 and New York State Thruway also can be adventurous during snowy days and nights.
Mark Kislowski, general manager at Morris Ford in Burnt Hills, said his technicians install snow tires for people who must make daily commutes to work. People who decide against the deeper treads, he thinks, could be rolling the dice and gambling on a mild winter.
Kislowski, also a modified stock car racer, said he doesn’t have to deal with snow tires during racing seasons. “I prefer the modified track,” he said, comparing winter driving to his hobby. “The temperatures are generally a lot warmer.
The Tire Industry Association in Bowie, Md., recommends snows for all four wheels. But if people are sticking to their all-season models, they should check tread wear. Association officials say the “penny test” still works — motorists just place a penny upside-down into the major tread groove of each tire. If the top of Lincoln’s head is visible, replacement tires are needed.