|To switch, or not to switch, it could one day be a null question. As temperatures across the province continue to drop and thousands of Albertans prepare for inevitable snowfall, the question as to whether or not winter tires should become mandatory is stirring up a flurry of debate—with no clear answer.|
In Canada, the contentious issue has snowballed to the point where regulations exist in some provinces, but in other jurisdictions, the topic remains on ice. And though the advocates for and against are divided, public education and awareness seem to provide some common ground.
When rubber first met road, tires delivered the flexibility needed to absorb the impacts of early infrastructure. But that was basically it. Today, thanks to advancements in technology, the marketplace is saturated with a plethora of tire options, which in the winter tire debate, adds to consumer confusion.
According to the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC), when the all-season tire was introduced into the marketplace, motorists were provided with better winter driving performance than with a traditional summer tire, and the opportunity to avoid the cost and inconvenience of the biannual snow tire changeover. However, with technological advances in tread compound and tread design, the tire industry now recommends winter tires for those wanting the safest winter driving experience. The association also points out that while all tire rubber will begin to stiffen as the mercury drops, the latest generations of winter tires maintain their elasticity even at temperatures approaching -30C and below, therefore providing superior traction and grip.
“In the old days when I was doing tire installations, a basic winter tire was just a tire with grips,” says Chris Grant, who’s been with St. Albert Fountain Tire for over 20 years. “Nowadays, the winter tires are made for performance vehicles—they’re not big knobby tires, so they don’t give you a rough ride. They handle very well and drive quiet—yet the ice traction they have is probably triple the amount of your regular all-season tire,” he explains.
To help simplify the vast product selection available to consumers, Grant says there are three main types of tires on the market: all-season, all-weather and winter.
All-season tires, generally the default tire on many new cars, are easily distinguished by the Mud and Snow symbol (M+S) on the sidewall and are not specifically designed for one particular weather condition. According to AMA Edmonton, all-season tires perform well in summer and light winter conditions, but as the temperature drops to 7C, the rubber starts to lose elasticity and traction decreases—with a complete loss of elasticity around -15C. Canada’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) agrees, suggesting that limitations in the design of an all-season tire in winter conditions include a less aggressive tread design that compromises traction, less flexibility in cold weather and a tendency for the tread to become snow-packed.
All-weather tires, relative newcomers to the market, carry a three-peaked-mountain/snowflake symbol, but their manufacturers also recommend them for summer use. According to TIRF, these tires are said to use hybrid tread that meets winter tire traction requirements on snow surfaces, yet are made from a unique compound that is more characteristic of conventional all-season tires. However, although all-weather tires have better winter performance than M+S tires, they do not possess the grip levels of what TIRF refers to as a “good ice and snow tire.”
According to TRAC, the newer generations of winter tires are designed with a more flexible rubber compound that is less prone to stiffen in colder temperatures, as well as a tread designed to provide improved traction on wet, slushy, snowy, icy and dry cold surfaces. “At temperatures just below freezing on dry pavement, winter tires have been shown to reduce stopping distances by as much as 30% compared to all-seasons,” says TRAC Communications Manager Carolyn Goard. “Winter tires offer significantly better traction on snow-covered or icy road surfaces at temperatures well below -30C than an all-season tire has at 4C,” she adds.
These tires also carry the mountain/snowflake or alpine symbol, indicating that the tire was specifically designed for severe snow conditions and has either met or exceeded the industry’s minimum snow-traction requirements to be deemed a dedicated winter tire. “Look at any good winter tire and you’ll see a bunch of little cuts in all the treads called siping. The more sipes you have in a tire for winter, the better ice traction you have,” says Grant. “Because the rubber is designed so it doesn’t freeze when it gets to -40C outside, your tires aren’t going to become ice cubes—they stay soft. Having said that, if you kept them on all year they, literally, would melt away in the heat.”
“When I first started selling tires, it was probably 10% to 15% of [St. Albert Fountain Tire] customers would choose winter tires […] now a rough estimate would be about 70% to 80% of the people we deal with are installing winter tires,” says Grant.
“Once you explain to the consumer the differences in all the tires and the pros and cons of everything, they’ll usually choose to run one set of tires in the summer and one set in the winter,” he explains. “Even though it’s a little bit more of an investment, the consumer seems to feel safer.”
Tire experts, including TRAC, agree that as soon as temperatures dip below 7C, people should consider changing to winter tires. According to Grant, the average lifespan for winter tires is around four to five years—with the average cost hovering near the $1,000 mark.
“Our role at the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada really is to educate Canadian drivers, as well as our leaders, about the safety and performance benefits of winter tires,” says Carolyn Goard. “The fact of the matter is that there is quite a substantial gap in knowledge when it comes to understanding how much winter tires outperform all-season tires in all winter road conditions—even on dry pavement,” she explains.
A 2014 TRAC survey found that 51% of Canadian drivers, with the exception of Québec, use winter tires. “In Alberta, the usage rate is significantly lower, with only 45% of Alberta drivers using winter tires—which means 55% of the province’s drivers are increasing their risk of being involved in an accident by not equipping their vehicles with winter tires,” says Goard.
“Our survey reveals that many Alberta motorists are not actually aware that winter tires provide significantly greater traction and control on all cold-weather road surfaces,” she says. “We are here to give Canadian motorists the facts and information they need to make an informed decision based on their needs and driving habits. But, at the end of the day, the fact is that all-season tires are a compromise when it comes to driving in the winter, and drivers should be well equipped for the winter months with a set of winter tires.”
That same TRAC survey also indicates that 66% of Canadian drivers feel their all-season tires are “good enough” to meet the demands of winter driving, 29% note cost as a barrier to purchasing winter tires and 20% say they just don’t drive that much in the winter to warrant the extra tire purchase.
Conducting their own survey last year, AMA Edmonton found that 53% of Albertans reported using winter tires—of those who said they didn’t use winter tires, 38% pointed to cost as a barrier, and 27% felt their all-seasons fit the bill. “We also found a wide range of perceptions about what winter tires are, how they work and what kinds of effectiveness they have on controlling a vehicle,” says AMA’s Chris Rechner. “We don’t take a stance on whether people should use winter tires. Our position is people should look at their own driving situations, look at the kind of vehicle they are using and then make the best decision.”
When the temperature dips below 7C, all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, recommend installing winter tires; however, only two jurisdictions have taken extra measures: Québec and British Columbia.
In 2008, Québec became the only province in Canada mandating vehicles to be equipped with four winter tires with fines for noncompliance in the $200 to $300 range. Under the Highway Safety Code, all taxis and passenger vehicles registered in that province, including mopeds or motorized scooters and motorcycles, must be equipped with tires specifically designed for winter driving (marked with the mountain/snowflake symbol) from December 15 to March 15 each year. This rule also applies to vehicles for rent in Québec. It was estimated at the time that approximately 4.5 million vehicles were affected by this measure.
In BC, as of 2014, the law stipulates that winter tires must be used on passenger vehicles and that commercial trucks must carry tire chains on select mountainous regions annually between October 1 and March 31. Signs are posted on each of the designated highways to advise motorists where winter tires are required—generally located approaching high mountain passes and interior highways where conditions can change from rain to snow very quickly.
The province of BC defines winter tires as those labelled with either the mountain/snowflake symbol or the Mud and Snow (M+S) symbol. Confused? Well, TRAC agrees. “[We] reached out to the government of BC in an effort to talk to the lawmakers. We believe that the government, when they relaxed their road laws to allow tires that have the M+S symbol, in fact took a step backwards in promoting winter road safety,” says TRAC’s Carolyn Goard. “We say this because more than 95% of tires on Canadian roads have the M+S symbol […] the Québec government is taking the proper approach in terms of what they classify as a ‘legal’ winter tire.”
Alberta drivers aren’t required by the province to equip their vehicles with winter tires—but is it time they did? Thomas Lukaszuk, former Alberta MLA and Deputy Premier, caused a storm of public debate when he posed that question on Twitter in 2014. “This issue was discussed by MLAs in passing, but policy initiatives were never undertaken,” he says. “Even though objective data shows that winter tires are safer and by extension would prevent injuries and save lives, making it mandatory would result in initial public opposition, and many politicians are unlikely to tackle this—sometimes making the right decisions takes courage.”
Lukaszuk suggests that the Alberta government could enter into a collaborative pilot project with the Insurance Bureau of Canada that would focus on driver education and provide insurance policy discount for winter tire users. “Such a staged approach could allow for consumer buy-in and ease the transition […] laws are more effective when people understand the reason for them and buy into them voluntarily.”
According to AMA Edmonton, in 2014, 58% of Albertans did not support having mandatory regulations around winter tires. However, the Association’s Chris Rechner also points out that while Québec has the strictest regulations, it actually had about 90% consumer buy-in, thanks to over 10 strong years of public education before it was made law.
Wildrose Transportation Shadow Minister Glenn Van Dijken says that by promoting winter tires through a public awareness campaign and encouraging voluntary use, we can measure the results and then determine if these efforts are sufficient. According to Van Dijken, Alberta Transportation had close to $31 million last year to spend on Traffic Safety Services. “There is no reason why winter tire use could not be included in this annual public education campaign,” he says.
Bob McManus, spokesperson for Alberta Transportation, says there are no plans to pursue mandatory legislation at this time nor have they collaborated with insurance or law enforcement on the issue, but that they are always open to exploring solutions for safety on our roads.
It has been widely published that since Québec regulations came into effect in 2008, winter collisions have reportedly fallen by 17%. However, AMA’s Chris Rechner is skeptical. “We know that the number one cause of collisions is driver error. I don’t know how you compensate for that in a study,” he says. Ward Vanlaar, vice president of research for TIRF agrees and says that more research is needed. “Winter tires outperform other types of tires […] as such there are benefits associated with using winter tires during the winter season. However, existing research about large-scale use of winter tires, for example in an entire country or province, is too limited to predict anticipated safety gains,” he explains.
The Alberta government reported that in 2013, the highest number of injury collisions occurred in November; however, tire use was not noted. In St. Albert, from 2009 to 2014, non-injury collisions were higher in the winter months of each year. However, as far as injury collisions go, the pattern is not as cyclical. “One would have to look at all of these collisions and find out what the underlying factors were and if road conditions or vehicle condition played a role. More often than not, it is a combination of factors, not one single causal factor,” says Aaron Giesbrecht, manager of policing services with the City of St. Albert.
Winter tires are used by the RCMP in all jurisdictions across Canada—when required according to the weather and terrain. “Our detachments in the northern part of the province, depending on exactly where they are located, would likely have them on for many more months than in the southeastern part of the province,” says RCMP inspector Gibson Glavin.
St. Albert Taxi also makes the winter tire changeover each year. Owner Blair Logan says it’s a matter of safety. “Winter conditions in Alberta can change dramatically within hours […] I think anybody that doesn’t use them is crazy,” he says. “The bottom line is it’s about your life and about safety. Is your life worth it? To me it is.”
School buses, experts say, might fall into a different category based on the sheer size and weight of the vehicle. Southland Transportation, which runs over 300 school buses in the Edmonton area, uses a M+S tire, which is more aggressively gripped than an all-season, according to Ron Baas, director of maintenance with Southland. “We’d never scrimp on cost for a matter of safety […] we’ve experimented with different kinds of grips and tires, and we feel we are using the best tire for our driving conditions,” he says. “We rarely have stuck buses due to [the] grip [on the] tires.”
Whether or not mandatory tire changeover will become as second nature to Albertans as digging out down-filled jackets remains to be seen. What researchers and experts will agree on, however, is the public’s misconceptions about winter tires—whereby the advantages are not fully understood. As such, raising awareness may prove to be a beneficial starting point for all parties involved. t8n
Myth: Vehicles with ABS, Electronic Stability Control (ESC), all-wheel (AWD) or four-wheel drive do not need winter tires.
Reality: In winter driving conditions such safety features are compromised without the use of winter tires.
Myth: Two winter tires instead of a complete set of four is sufficiently safe.
Reality: Mixing different types of tires can cause a vehicle to fishtail.
–Tire and Rubber Association of Canada
Each province has its own set of requirements or restrictions when it comes to studded tires (metal studs that protrude out of the tire in an effort to improve grip). In Alberta, no restrictions exist.
Illustration © mtmmarek / Dollar Photo Club