- What's the difference between winter and summer tyres?
- Why you should consider switching tyres for different seasons
- How to fit snow chains when driving in difficult conditions
It doesn't matter whether you drive a high-performance car or a slightly more practical family hatchback, the four slivers of rubber that adorn your wheels are absolutely vital to keeping motorists, erm, motoring.
Most drivers know that it's important to check the condition of their tyres regularly in order to stay safe – and on the right side of the law – but it can come as a surprise that the weather and temperature can play a major part in reducing grip levels.
How does wintry weather affect my tyres?
Gary Powell, Bridgestone's north region technical manager (@BridgestoneUK), talks us through it.
'With their special compounds and tread patterns, winter tyres are designed to stay soft and flexible in cold conditions, providing traction and grip in low temperatures on dry, wet and icy surfaces. But as the temperature rises, winter tyres lose this advantage, grip declines and the tread starts to wear faster.
'On the other hand, summer tyres use a harder compound, which does not become too soft and sticky on hot roads. In higher temperatures, summer tyres provide better all-round performance than winter tyres, particularly in braking and handling, wear resistance, rolling resistance and fuel economy,' he explains.
In short, winter weather typically means plenty of moisture on the road surface, plummeting temperatures and the potential for ice and snow. All of these things require a tyre with the right rubber compound and correct tread to provide optimal grip.
What tyres are best for changing conditions?
Modern tyre manufacturers now create specific rubber compounds and treads to suit a number of climatic conditions.
Tyre seller Oponeo, for example, suggests that when the thermometer dips below 7 degrees Celsius, it's time to swap out standard summer tyres for those designed specifically to handle colder climates.
'Wintry weather means cold temperatures – an influential factor in worsening tyre grip,' explains Jonathan Girling of Tyresafe.org (@Tyresafe).
'As summer tyres get colder, they harden, reducing their grip. This results in extended braking distances and reduced performance when cornering. Winter tyres' compound has different chemical agents to reduce the impact of this hardening effect and, in addition to more grooves or 'sipes', will give superior performance in wintry conditions compared with summer and all-season tyres'.
That said, it's important to keep on top of shifting weather conditions and swap back to summer tyres when the temperature rises, as braking distances typically increase with winter tyres when the thermometer reaches 20 degrees Celsius or more.
What about all-weather tyres?
There is, of course, an alternative: the all-weather tyre. Bridgestone, for example, has created the Weather Control A001, which, according to the manufacturer, has 'excellent wet and winter grip', but can also react to 'fast-changing weather conditions'.
Michelin, meanwhile, has created the CrossClimate+ tyre that, the company claims, performs as well as a premium summer tyre in the warmer months but also offers excellent traction on the snow.
The benefit of fitting all-weather tyres is obvious: less hassle and less cost. However, they usually offer less traction then winter tyres in winter and summer tyres in summer – the CrossClimate+ is perhaps an exception. Of course, it depends entirely on the weather conditions in your area – if you rarely see snow, an all-weather tyre might be enough to cope with slippery road surfaces.
When should I fit winter tyres?
We don't tend to experience lots of snow in the UK over winter, so the choice to fit winter tyres should be down to geographical location and personal preference. Advice across the board states that it's sensible to make the switch when temperatures drop below 7 degrees Celsius, or between October and March.
'Although it is not a legal requirement to fit winter tyres in the UK, they are the safest option when the road is covered in snow and ice or cold and damp conditions,' says Jonathan.
'TyreSafe recommends motorists fit winter tyres to their car from October to March. In some European countries, it is a legal requirement to fit winter tyres'.
Peter Rodger, IAM (@IAMRoadSmart) chief examiner, claims that drivers should weigh up the extra expense of fitting winter tyres, considering a full set can cost upwards of £500.
'Most drivers won't detect any significant difference in grip until the temperature is freezing,' he explains.
'Most importantly, if conditions are really treacherous you should just consider postponing the journey and staying at home'.
Will switching from winter to summer tyres, or vice versa, affect my car insurance?
'LV= doesn't view winter tyres or use of snow chains as a change to manufacturer's standard specification,' says senior motor underwriter Sarah Gray. 'As long as changes to tyres are the standard size and specification for your car and are in roadworthy condition, fitting them won't affect your premium and you don't need to let us know.'
Will I ever need snow chains?
Snow chains should be seen as a last resort and only used when there's a very thick blanket of snow on the roads or they are a legal requirement, as the harsh metal construction of the chain can damage the road surface and they have an adverse effect on the way a car drives and handles.
'When driving in European countries, some motorists might be forced to use snow chains by law,' says Gary. 'Local road signs indicate when they are legally required and generally this is around ski resorts and on mountain roads.
'But snow chains can only be used on snow-covered roads and must be removed when driving on a tarmac surface. The maximum recommended speed is 30mph,' he adds.
Always check the manufacturer's fitting instructions before resorting to chains, and practise putting them on when it's safe and warm. There's nothing worse than fiddling with chains by the side of the road on a snowy day.
If you're driving abroad during the winter, or climbing into snowy conditions, you might have to think about adding snow chains. But even if you're in the UK all year, switching to winter tyres, and then back to summer ones, could well keep you safer on the roads.