Published December 14, 2012
Five Tips for Using Winter Tires on Snow, Ice
For much of the country, cold-weather driving season is here. It's important for car owners to make sure their tires are up to the task, whether they expect to drive in a cool, mild climate or through multiple snowstorms, says Lauren Fix, a consumer auto expert known as "The Car Coach."
Good tires will improve the braking, handling and fuel economy of a vehicle. "You should visually inspect your tires once a month," Fix says
Here are five tips for examining your tires and making sure they are winter-ready, including understanding the tread depth of tires and measuring that depth regularly.
Understand Your Tire's Tread Depth
In order to have better handling during wintry conditions, tires need good tread depth, says John Rastetter, director of tire information services for TireRack.com. This is a measure of the top of the tread rubber to the bottom of the tire's deepest grooves, he says.
Rastetter says standard new tires have one-quarter inch to one-third inch of tread depth. However, as a car is driven, the depth wears down.
When tread depth gets too low -- less than about 5/32 of an inch -- water on the road won't be able to escape through the tire's grooves as easily. The tire isn't able to make full contact with the pavement, so it loses traction, Rastetter says.
Michael Calkins, manager of Approved Auto Repair with AAA's national office in Heathrow, Fla., says when a vehicle loses traction, it could cause the auto to hydroplane on slick roads or otherwise lose control. Tires with low tread depth can cause the car to take longer to stop when the brakes are applied, he says.
If a tire has no discernible tread pattern left over some or its entire surface, it's considered a bald tire and should be replaced immediately.
Measure Tire Depth Regularly
The standard tool to measure tread depth is a tire gauge, but a driver also can use a coin to make an easy estimate, Fix says.
Take a quarter and place George Washington's head directly in the tread on the outside, middle and inside grooves. "If you can see the top of his head in at least one location, you need new tires," Fix says.
Measure your tread depth on a regular basis. According to TireRack.com, if a tire fails the quarter test, it usually has no more than 4/32 inch of tread depth.
"It is time to start shopping for new tires," Calkins says.
Drivers also can use a penny to test tread. If they see the top of Abraham Lincoln's head, then the tires likely have no more than 2/32 of an inch of tread, according to TireRack.com.
A tire with this measurement is at the legal minimum for tread depth, so it needs to be replaced immediately, Calkins says.
Plan for Winter Weather
When shopping for tires, car owners need to consider the type of road conditions they expect, Fix says. Many drivers will be fine with all-season tires, but others may need a more specialized set.
"If you see snow at least twice a year and it's a few inches (deep), your best choice is to purchase winter tires, as they will give you the best grip on the road," she says.
Winter, or snow, tires have special tread that's been tested to perform better in snowy and icy conditions. They also are made of a material that stays more pliable in colder temperatures than regular tires, Fix says.
Some people believe that if they have four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles, the car doesn't need special tires. But, regular tires only give minimal traction in diagonal handling and braking situations during snowy and icy conditions, so they wouldn't be the best option in winter weather, she says.
A set of four tires can be pricey, with some sets beginning around $400. When shopping, look for tires marked with the industry's image of a snowflake with a mountain behind it -- the mountain/snowflake symbol.
"These tires meet or exceed industry-established snow traction performance requirements," Fix says.
Calkins says when winter ends and temperatures rise, it will be important to replace the winter tires with standard ones. Otherwise, when the road surface gets warmer, the softer winter tires will wear prematurely.
Keep Tires Properly Inflated
Regardless of whether you choose winter tires or ones that are made for all seasons, make sure they are properly inflated, Calkins says.
"Follow the recommended inflation pressure shown on the vehicle tire information decal, usually located on the driver's doorjamb," he says.
Inflation is measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI. Tires that are at their recommended PSI level will maximize tread contact with the road for the best traction, Calkins says.
Tire inflation is especially important in the winter because pressure drops one PSI for every 10-degree drop in outside temperature, he says.
Don't Forget the Spare Tire
If a spare tire is kept in the car's trunk, make sure it is usable should a road emergency occur, Calkins says. "If the spare is the same size and type as the other four tires on the car and has a wheel that matches as well, you can add it to the normal tire rotation process," he says.
If it can't be rotated with the other tires on the vehicle, it is up to the vehicle owner to inspect the tire regularly and make sure it is properly inflated at all times, he says.
If the spare tire is smaller than the ones on the car, it should be replaced as soon as possible.