Should Ireland get a grip on winter tyres?


It’s clear that winter tyres can help get a vehicle through snow, but are they really neccessary in Ireland?

TO MANY, the phrase “winter tyres” conjures up images of rubber studs and spikes. Indeed, these wouldn’t be out of place given the weather and icy conditions we’re experiencing this week, but most winter tyres look little different to regular items, so what good are they to us?

With a normal tyre the rubber and silica compound begins to harden as the temperature drops, so the tyre doesn’t deform so readily in relation to the road surface. Hence it loses grip. This affects traction and significantly lengthens braking distances. This is why even drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles struggle to make it up icy inclines.

A figure of below seven degrees Celsius is widely quoted as the temperature at which normal tyres begin to lose their effectiveness.

Winter tyres contain more natural rubber, which stops the tyre hardening when it’s cold, making them much more effective at lower temperatures.

Research carried out by Continental Tyres gives an indication of how effective winter tyres can be. In one experiment, the car was found to stop 23 per cent more quickly on snow (from 50km/h) and 19 per cent more quickly on ice (from 30km/h).

However, there should be significant benefits even when the roads are clear. Most tyre manufacturers offer wider tread patterns on their winter tyres that clear water more effectively than normal tyres. Winter tyres will also grip a cold, dry road better. Regular tyres wear out more quickly when they are cold and hard.

There’s no arguing with the science behind the design of winter tyres, but are they necessary in Ireland, where we have, despite the evidence of this week’s cold snap, a mild climate?

A look at average temperatures over the years suggests that they will dip below the seven-degree mark in five to seven months of the year. Obviously this varies across the country and Met Éireann maintains that the probability of snow and ice is the same every year. It’s as likely to be gone in a week as not.

Hence there’s no clear-cut direction to take for motorists and indeed the law makers. Several European countries – including Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden – have legal guidelines on their use, but no guidelines have as yet been introduced in Ireland.

BMW believes it will become more of an issue here and this year offered drivers of its cars a ready-to-fit set of winter tyres and wheels from about €580. To ease the process, BMW’s dealers will store the set of wheels and tyres not in use. But the company are very much in the minority, with winter tyres proving hard to find among suppliers.

Unless we experience a sustained period of icy, snowy conditions, it’s unlikely that the average Irish driver will fork out on extra tyres. It’s just too expensive for a relatively intangible gain. Bridgestone doesn’t offer full winter tyres in Ireland, instead suggesting that its all-weather tyres are better suited to our climate – and less of a compromise all year round. However, even they attract a 10 per cent premium.

Cheaper, temporary alternatives do exist. Snow chains are an option for use in deep snow. Bear in mind though, that while there are no laws directly relating to fitting snow chains, you can be fined for using anything that may damage the road, so they should be used selectively. The advent of snow “socks” offers a relatively low-cost option too, though they’re best suited to low-speed driving under 50km/h.

It’s impossible to separate cost from the argument for or against winter tyres. Most tyre choices are based on their price and they’re not changed until absolutely necessary. For the most part, tyre suppliers do not stock winter tyres, as there is very low demand for them.

However, the safety gains made at this time of year could outweigh the potential extra cost. Even if it doesn’t snow.