Are Snow Tires a Worthwhile Investment?

Good tires are critical to road safety, and if you live somewhere it snows, you've likely wondered whether winter tires are worth the cost. These expert tips will help you decide.

The first time I ever drove in a snowstorm, I was genuinely surprised by how out of control my car felt. Slipping and sliding, I struggled to get to my destination safely. It felt like I was driving a car that was wearing skates—a car that had no knowledge of how to skate, and which was controlled solely by me pointing it in the "right" direction and hoping it would stop in time for the next light.

From 2007 to 2016, 22 percent of all crashes and 16 percent of all crash fatalities were directly related to weather, such as rain, sleet, fog, ice, and, of course, snow. When driving, particularly in bad weather, good tires are critical; they provide traction to safely handle any condition you're driving through. And if you live in an area where it snows, you might be wondering if it makes sense to buy winter tires.

"Your tire choice can be one of the most important decisions you make when facing winter driving conditions," says Russell Shepherd, Michelin's technical communications director. Tires are expensive, so buying a second set for the winter months is something to thoughtfully and critically consider.

car on snowy road through forest
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How do winter tires work?

The tread pattern, design, and rubber compound on each tire is carefully designed for traction, road noise, handling, braking, and much more.

"Winter tires incorporate different rubber compounding and tread designs from your average all-season tire that allows them to perform better in areas that have snow, ice, slush, and cold weather," says Chris Han, marketing manager for Kumho Tires. "These tires remain pliable in colder temperatures and have added siping in the tread to enhance braking and steering control in winter conditions, which are key performance components for safety."

Who needs winter tires?

To buy winter tires, or not to buy winter tires—that is the question. When over $500 is on the line, this choice can be a tough one to make, so let's break it down.

While this may seem obvious, it's important for car owners not to make a decision on winter tires based on whether you own an all-wheel-drive vehicle or not. "While vehicles [that] have AWD or 4WD improve driving and steering in winter, your tire selection can improve those performances and make the difference on how well you stop," says Shepherd. "Stopping on snow and ice is all about your tires, where the rubber meets the road."

The condition of the roads in your area, and how often you get out when it snows, are critical considerations—in addition to your comfort, the handling, and the braking of your vehicle.

"As a general rule, we advise that people who live in areas where it snows frequently and the roads are often snow- and ice-covered for weeks at a time invest in a set of dedicated winter/snow tires," says Ryan Pszczolkowski, who heads tire testing at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center in Colchester, Conn.

If roads in your area are cleared reliably, but you're a nurse, doctor, firefighter, or work any other job that requires you to be at work no matter the weather, getting snow tires is a worthwhile investment as well. Plus, regardless of the condition of the roads or your profession, if you know winter tires will make you feel more comfortable driving, then they are a worthwhile investment.

Ultimately, for most people, all-season tires work perfectly for their driving needs. If you want a bit more traction with a tire designed to better handle all seasons, but don't want to spend the money on a separate set of tires, all-weather tires might be a choice that you may not have considered.

"All-weather tires give you enhanced performance in winter conditions but are not fully winter tires," says Han. "You can think of this type of product as one that sits between an all-season and a winter tire that you can utilize all year without having to swap out tires which can be costly." All-weather tires go through actual traction testing just like winter tires, prior to receiving the three-peak-mountain snowflake symbol on the sidewall, says Pszczolkowski.

Buying Winter Tires

The process of buying winter tires is essentially identical to buying regular tires, with one major exception: As with any large purchase, buying tires, especially snow tires, starts with a lot of research, well in advance of the purchase date.

But with winter tires, that research isn't just because you won't have the chance to get the best price last-minute; it's also because you simply may not be able to find them for sale certain times of year. Winter tires are available in small quantities and sizes, and tires may sell out.

When to Install, and How to Store Your Tires

If you're investing in a set of winter tires, it's important that you know when to install them and how to store them between seasons in order to make sure they last as long as possible—and truly help you stop your vehicle, instead of hindering it.

While it might feel like keeping your winter tires all year will save you money, it's important to remove the tires after the winter season. Winter tires aren't designed for driving in warmer temperatures, and Consumer Reports testing has found that not only will they wear out quickly, they'll have a longer braking distance and reduced handling.

While the exact date depends on a lot of factors, "as a general standard, winter tires should be applied when temperatures start to drop below 40 degrees, says Han. "Tires should be swapped out as soon as the weather starts getting warmer."

Pszczolkowski recommends getting a separate set of wheels dedicated to your winter tires. "Many folks opt for steel wheels, which is often a cheaper alternative—but aftermarket alloy wheels can be had for a decent price as well," he says. "Mounting them on separate wheels allows for easier changeovers in spring and fall without having to dismount and remount the tires on the same wheels."

Having two sets of wheels helps make storing your tires without damaging them easier. "While either set of wheels and tires is not in use, they should be stored indoors at room temperature, if possible, but at least away from sunlight," says Pszczolkowski. "Tires do age over time, and this can help reduce aging."

"Investing in dedicated winter/snow tires is a bit of a situational decision," says Pszczolkowski. But if you do invest, be sure to do it right.

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