Although most motorists never think about it, sometimes tires can actually be the cause of winter safety issues.
Imagine that your car is traveling on a neighborhood road, a road you have driven so many times that you can describe it in your sleep, when suddenly the car’s front right wheel catches a sandy patch covering a bit of ice and your car pivots, out of control, into a skid.
Careening to the left, your car continues to skid, out of control, as you fight the wheel to control the skid. Just as you think it is coming back under control, the left rear wheel catches another, larger patch of sand and salt on the median, throwing whatever control you had out the window.
Skidding Out of Control
Instead, your car continues to skid leftward, out of control so that it continues around in a 360-degree spin. The spin continues and the front end comes around and your front tires bite into the surface of the roadway so that your car comes out of the skid and travels straight, right into the guardrail with a resounding bang, the airbag in the steering wheel popping, leaving the telltale aroma of propellant filling the cabin.
Of course, you are disoriented and you wonder why your car is smoking and you think there’s a fire under the hood, but your head clears a bit and you realize the airbag has deployed. Shaking the cobwebs out, you unlock the door and get out of the vehicle, phoning emergency authorities.
Does this seem familiar to you? If it is, then it is likely you have been involved in this type of accident. And, you may have wondered how it could have happened. After all, the road was clear, the weather was dry, the sky was cloudy and the temperatures were well below freezing, so, how, you may wonder could this have happened?
Let’s look at some clues:
The temperature was well below freezing2.
The road was covered with a thin film of sand and salt3.
The median was filled with residue sand and salt4.
The shoulder was filled with icy patches
Since the temperature was well below freezing, it is fair to ask just how long the temperature had been at that level, a day, two days or a week? And, how long had it been since the last snowfall or period of freezing rain? If the road surface still had salt and sand residue and the shoulder still had patches of ice and salt, how long had it been since the most recent precipitation?
Underreported Safety Issue
All of these clues point to something, an underreported traffic safety issue, cold. That single word spells out a problem that many motorists just don’t think about. Yet, cold can be a driver’s worst, if hidden, enemy. Eric Lai, cold weather expert at wheels.com, put it correctly when he noted that the typical all-season tire with which most cars are equipped directly from the showroom is made of a compound that tends to harden up when temperatures drop below 45 º F.
In turn, the hardened tires tend to lose their ability to grip the roadway surface cutting even further the small contact patch between a tire and the road. If the temperature remains cold for a long period, it is quite possible for tires that have been installed on your car for a year or two to show cracking caused by the continuing cold, said General Motors.
The automaker noted that the cracks do not necessarily cause tire failure. However, the cracks do show up in the surface and they do ultimately damage the tire.
Cracking and tire-hardening are enhanced by temperatures below -7 C. Tires can be damaged even further if temperatures drop below -22º C or -4º F.
This might be somewhat unbelievable to those who have believed that all-season tires are a panacea for motorists. However, tire experts universally agree that all-season tires should be swapped out and replaced by winter or snow tires when the temperatures hit 45º F. The compound used in them begins to harden at that point.
At one time — roughly 38 years ago — the problem of cold and tires never would have arisen because it was almost universally agreed that right around Thanksgiving in November motorists should change their “summer” tires for “winter” rubber.
First All-Season Tire
It was at that time — roughly 1977 — that the first all-season tires appeared. Goodyear pioneered all-season tires with the introduction of their first Tiempo all-season tires. All-season tires are made of a compound that favors tire longevity and performance at temperatures over 45º F.
They are made to work on wet roads, dry roads, lightly sandy soil and in some light snow. They are really not made to work in severe cold or deep snow and ice.
That, however, is not the message that the tire industry has been pushing for nearly the last four decades. Instead, the industry has been telling motorists and manufacturers that all-season or all-weather tires perform as well as winter tires in all conditions so that motorists do not have to change tires in the fall to winter tires.
The all-season marketing line has resonated with the auto industry. Indeed, it is estimated that nearly 98 percent of all new cars sold are equipped with all-season tires. Putting it in terms of new-car sales for last year. With industry sales of more than 17 million vehicles in 2014, it means that fully 16.7 million vehicles were equipped with all-season tires.
Installed on Most Cars
Some might thing that with overwhelming numbers like 16.7 million vehicles that the debate over all-weather or all-season tires and winter tires had been settled, but it hasn’t. This is because no one can get around the fact that winter (snow) tires are plainly better than all-weather tires because they are made of a soft compound that remains flexible when temperatures drop below 0º F. Snow tires also have a more aggressive tread pattern than all-season tires.
Snow tires have a broad cleat-like tread pattern, vaguely reminiscent of tractor-style cleats. The chunkier cleat pattern can bite into snow and provide surer footing in all types of snow. And, since the compound remains flexible at low temperatures, winter tires also provide surer footing in icy conditions.
With all of this said, it is not unfair to state that, in many cases, the tires chosen for a motorist by the factory may be causing more safety issues than may be realized.
If this is the case, then, what is the cure? It is simple: move back to the thinking that governed cars from the 1930s to the 1970s where motorists changed their vehicular tires every winter. It will help keep drivers safer.
This isn’t to say that all-season tires are not good performers because they are in the role that suits them best — with temperatures over 45ºF and on dry or wet roads. If they are used primarily in this role and alternated with winter tires the safety issue goes away.