AMA: The Cold Truth About Winter Tires

Growing up in central Alberta, my dad used to tell me that winter tires are “for people from Toronto who have to call in the army to shovel the sidewalks when it snows.” Until he slid around the corner and shaved off a slice of our neighbour’s Buick. When I overheard him tell my little brother to get his head out of his you-know-what and put some winter tires on his car I just smiled and kept my yap shut.

The fact is that despite their name, the rubber in ‘all season’ tires starts to lose elasticity and harden when it gets cold. I always know winter is just around the corner when the Oilers and Flames hit the ice and every TV commercial is for the biggest winter tire sale in history. With winter snow tires, winter ice tires and all weather tires, consumers have never had so many products to choose from … and they’ve never been more confused.

Get your grip on

Depending on the conditions you tend to drive in, it might make sense to make the switch to a winter tire for improved traction and directional control. A study by Quebec’s Ministry of Transport found that winter tires improved stopping distances by up to 25%, depending on the vehicle type.

When buying a winter tire do your homework and set a budget. Always check your owner’s manual for manufacturer recommendations and make sure to use a set of four identical tires. Many people see value in purchasing an extra set of wheels, making it easier (and cheaper) to switch tires seasonally.

A 2014 AMA survey found that just over half of Albertans (52.8%) reported using winter tires this past winter and 86% of those folks indicated they always use winter tires. If you’re still sitting on the fence, AMA members can earn up to $50 reward dollars with the purchase of tires from The Tire Warehouse, Blaskin & Lane, Tolley Tire & Auto Repair or Don’s Tires.

Finding the perfect fit

All Season Tires ( M + S )

Easily distinguished by the ‘Mud + Snow’ symbol on the sidewall, all season tires use tread patterns and compounds optimized to provide good wear and traction in a variety of conditions. They perform well in summer and light winter conditions, but as the temperature drops to 7° Celsius the rubber starts to lose elasticity and traction decreases. Most all seasons completely lose their elasticity around -15° Celsius.

Winter Snow Tires 

Look for the ‘mountain snowflake’ symbol that indicates the tires meet strict industry winter performance standards. Made from silica compounds that can retain elasticity as cold as -40° Celsius, winter snow tires have special tread patterns with blocks set fairly far apart for better grip on snow-packed roads. Designed to prevent snow build-up and improve traction in moderate to heavy snow, winter snow tires are a good choice for drivers in rural areas or those facing a mix of winter conditions.

Winter Ice Tires 

Made from similar compounds, winter ice tires feature a tread pattern made up of blocks set closely together for enhanced traction on ice. Marked with the same ‘mountain snowflake’ symbol, winter ice tires are a good choice for vehicles that mostly travel on cleared but slick and icy city roads or highways. For those facing extreme ice or travelling mountain roads, studded winter ice tires can provide even more traction.

All Weather Tires

Fairly new to the consumer market, all weather tires provide elasticity above and below 7° Celsius, providing good grip on snow, slush, wet roads and bare asphalt. An aggressive tread design bites snow and pushes away water and slush, but also provides smooth handling and a quiet ride on dry pavement. All weather tires may be a good choice for those who want some of the benefits of a winter tire without the seasonal changeover.

Should Winter Tires be Mandatory in Alberta?

Quebec is the only province in Canada that mandates the use of winter tires from December 15 – March 15 each winter, with fines for noncompliance in the $200-$300 range. Since the regulations came into effect in 2008, winter collisions have fallen by 17%. In BC most highways now require winter tires on passenger vehicles and tire chains on commercial trucks between October 1st and March 31st each year.

Albertans remain divided on the issue – AMA survey results show that nearly 58% of Albertans would not support such a law. With no such regulations on the horizon in Alberta, it’s up to consumers to examine their winter driving habits and conditions and make an informed choice.

(Source: Alberta Motor Association)