Click to enlarge pictureTire in snow (© Perry Stern)

Driving on a worn set of all-season tires compromises traction. True winter tires can offer up to 33 percent more traction than tires that have a “mud and snow” rating.

4. Betrayed by tired tires
A generation ago, every driver in the Snowbelt had a set of deep-lugged snow tires mounted right after Thanksgiving. In the age of huge, rear-wheel-drive American sedans and station wagons, you needed that traction to get through the winter. With the advent in the 1980s of front-wheel drive and radial tires, snow tires went out of fashion. Cox says we need to get that traction back. “You must drive within the limits of your equipment,” he said. “And if you are driving in the winter on a set of worn all-season tires, your traction is really compromised. It’s like trying to get through winter with tennis shoes on your feet.”

Winter-rated tires, which can be identified by a mountain/snowflake symbol molded on the sidewall, have a specific tread design, tread depth and pliable rubber compound designed to excel on snow and cold surfaces. According to Cox, a winter-rated tire can offer 33 percent more traction than a tire with a “mud and snow” rating. Many high-performance cars come with summer-only tires that provide tremendous grip on hot, dry pavement, but should be replaced for winter driving.

If you live in a place like Steamboat Springs, investing in a set of winter tires — and you should buy four to balance the traction at each wheel —is an easy decision to make. Drivers living on the fringes of the Snowbelt may be fine on a good set of “all-season” mud- and snow-rated tires. But if you live in between, are winter-rated tires a worthwhile investment?

“I like to point out that the cost of a set of winter tires is almost always cheaper than your insurance deductable,” said Cox. “Take them off in the spring, and most drivers can get two or three seasons from a set of winter tires. And of course you are not wearing out your summer tires as quickly, either.”

More quick tips

  • Install winter wiper blades, which have a rubber cover over the steel bow that won’t freeze up or clog with ice.
  • Use the windshield squeegee to clean off your headlights when you stop for gas. Dried salt residue on the headlight lenses can cut the light output significantly.
  • Have your battery tested to make sure it’s delivering full performance. The cold-weather starting power of a battery that’s three or four years old can be greatly diminished.
  • Windows fogging? Turn on your air conditioning along with the defroster – the AC will carry moisture out of the cabin. Make sure your ventilation system is set to the “fresh air” setting so that damp air is exhausted from the car, not just recirculated. Brush snow off your clothes and kick slush off your boots before you get into the car – melting snow adds humidity to the air, which fogs the windows.
  • Brush all the snow off your car before you drive. Snow left on the hood can obscure your vision, blow onto the windshield and foul the wipers, and sift into the ventilation vents in the cowl and fog up the windshield. Snow blowing off the roof may distract other drivers, or cover your back window and rear lights. Scrape snow and frost off all windows and mirrors so you have full visibility.
  • Carry basic winter-driving tools: a scraper and brush, a small shovel, jumper cables, a flashlight and a tow strap. If you travel in remote or rural areas, pack along a sleeping bag and some nonperishable food and water. Some magazines or a book can help you pass the time —and avoid getting frustrated —while you wait for help if you become stuck or stranded in traffic.

Veteran moto-journalist and Wisconsin-native Charles Plueddeman has been driving, riding and testing automobiles, motorcycles, boats, ATVs and snowmobiles for more than 20 years. He is a regular contributor to Boating Magazine and Outdoor Life, and his product evaluation articles have appeared in Popular Mechanics, Men's Journal, AutoWorld, Playboy, Boats.com and many other national publications and Web sites.

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