With winter almost upon us once again in Canada, it’s time to not only prepare ourselves for the return of bitter weather, with annual flu shots and new coat and boot purchases, but we need to get our vehicles ready as well.
One of the most common winter rituals is switching all-season and summer performance tires out in favour of those designed specifically for winter driving. The reasons for doing so might appear obvious, given Canadian winters are quite long and cold with heavy snowfall accumulation, but I’m going to outline the main benefits of winter tire use along with other factors to consider when making the switch.
First up, the benefits.
Cold weather performance
Simply put, winter tires, unlike all-season, performance and even all-weather tires, work much better in cold weather. They are engineered specifically for driving conditions when the mercury is at or below 7 degrees Celsius (45° F). Other tires, such as all-seasons, feature rubber compounds that are designed for warmer weather, but they become much harder as the temperature drops, which leads to a loss of traction. Winter tires, because they are designed for cold weather, use softer rubber compounds that remain flexible, even in bitter conditions, allowing for better grip and better performance on ice and snow-covered roads. Winter tires also contain silica, a material that comes from sand which, when used in rubber compounds, improves grip at lower temperatures.
As you have likely noticed, tires designed for different seasons have tread patterns that vary significantly. Winter tires tend to stand out because of their chunkier appearance that makes for better grip on ice and snow. Generally, winter tires have a more open tread pattern with deeper sipes (grooves) that are designed to push away ice and snow. Sipes on winter tires also feature hundreds of biting edges that help provide better grip on snow, ice and slush-covered surfaces. All-season tires, on the other hand, are designed for pushing water away, and their shallower sipes can become packed with snow and slush, leading to loss of traction.
Winter tire design not only improves handling in cold weather, but also shorter stopping distances, even on dry pavement. According to a 2012 study published by the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation, stopping distance for vehicles equipped with all-season tires on dry pavement at temperatures just below freezing (0° C / 32° F) is 30 per cent longer than those shod in winter tires.
With those factors in mind, here are some other things to know about winter tires.
Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake
A tire that is rated for winter use will have a three-peak mountain snowflake graphic, also known as the Alpine symbol, located on its sidewall. That three-peak mountain snowflake designates that the tire meets snow traction requirements as set forth by Transport Canada and the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), a trade association that represents tire manufacturers. On Transport Canada’s website, winter tires are described as, “designed specifically for use in severe snow conditions.”
It is important to note the distinction between the Alpine symbol found on winter tires and the M+S (mud and snow) marking on the sidewall of many all-season tires. The M+S designation indicates the tires are designed for all-weather performance but “may not always be suitable for severe snow conditions.”
As for summer tires, well, you don’t want to be riding on them when snow starts flying: “wide, high performance tires, other than those that are specifically designed as snow tires, are not suitable for use on snow-covered roads,” according to Transport Canada.
Winter tires are mandatory in some parts of Canada…
Two provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, have laws on their books mandating winter tire use. In Quebec, winter tires are mandatory from December 1 to March 15, with fines of up to $300 for those who fail to comply.
In B.C., winter tires or all-seasons with the M+S rating are required for specific highways and mountain roads from October 1 to April 30. Some, such as Highway 99 (Sea to Sky) that links metro Vancouver to Whistler, have an end date of March 31, but the deadline can be extended. Highways covered by the law are marked with signs, and motorists can be hit with a $109 fine if they don’t comply.
… but only recommended in others
For the rest of Canada, winter tires are recommended but not mandatory, and some provincial incentives exist to encourage adoption. In Manitoba, the provincial government offers a low-interest loan to motorists for the purchase of approved winter tires, while in Ontario, rebates on insurance premiums (up to five per cent) are available. I examine the latter in more detail here.
All other provinces and territories recommend winter tire use but have no laws mandating the practice. Interestingly, according to TRAC’s 2018 Canadian Consumer Winter Tire Study, 94 per cent of drivers in Atlantic Canada use winter tires without a legal mandate. Only Quebec has a higher use percentage. And the provinces with the lowest adoption rate? Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan (all 60 per cent).
How much does a set of winter tires cost?
The short answer to this question is that it varies – depending on vehicle driven, tire brand, manufacturer rebates, retailer and other factors. Generally, national brands, such as Bridgestone and Michelin, both of whom make excellent winter tires, cost more. Others, such as the Sailun Ice Blazers on my car, can be had for less.
For instance, a local retailer near me in Durham Region is currently selling a set of Michelin X-Ice Xi3 winter tires for my vehicle (2010 Honda Civic Si coupe) for just under $900 after manufacturer rebate, but before applicable fees and taxes. A set of Bridgestone Blizzak WS90s check in at just over $800 with the same conditions. For reference, the set of Sailuns I bought in late 2017 cost just under $600 all in, and I’m just as happy with my purchase now as I was when I bought them nearly three years ago.
According to data from Environment Canada, Toronto received an average annual snowfall of 130.2 cm (4.3 feet) from 2017 through 2019. Figures for 2020 aren’t yet available, but I think that figure alone makes an excellent argument for winter tires.
Benjamin Franklin was referring to fire safety when he famously said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but I think his words work just as well for winter tire adoption. Were he alive today, I’m sure Ben would agree.