Winter driving—where the rubber meets the road

Driving safely in winter takes practice. While the steps are simple—go slow, lean into a skid, and don’t overcorrect—only experience can make you a good winter driver. If you grew up in New England or the Midwest, it might come naturally, but if you’re from warmer climates, even a stray snowflake might give you the chills.

The good news is, there are things you can do to prepare for winter driving—even if you’re a transplant or a new driver.

You may think your car is capable in snow and ice because of features like all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control. If you drive a late model car, features like these can give you an edge in winter driving. However, nothing has as much impact on performance in adverse conditions as tires. A brand-new car with advanced safety features can still be dangerous if driven in winter weather with the wrong tires or tires that are not properly maintained. If you’re looking to improve the capabilities of your vehicle this winter, your tires are the best place to start.


Get a grip


Maintaining traction and tire grip is key to safe winter driving because it reduces the chances of losing control of your vehicle in snow and icy conditions. Keep in mind as you drive down the highway, each of your tires only contacts the road in a spot about the size of a handprint. Because this contact point is so small, factors like tire type, tread depth, pressure and age can dramatically impact safety. Improper tire selection and condition can lead to accidents (including vehicle rollovers), so it’s important to inspect your tires to make sure you’re prepared.1


Choose the right tires for winter driving


Tire technology today is complex. Even if your vehicle is brand new, your tires might not be optimized for winter conditions. Many vehicles come with all-season tires for year-round wet and dry traction including light snow. However, given the wide range of temperatures and environments tires operate in, all-season tires are a compromise that do not offer the very best winter performance.

For drivers in the Snowbelt—with its heavy snowfall, icy roads and extreme cold temperatures—winter tires should be considered as they offer the best possible performance and safety. In fact, they make such a difference, some Canadian provinces mandate the use of winter tires from December to March.2

If you have a high performance vehicle or sports car, you may even have dedicated summer tires, which should never be driven in freezing or near-freezing temperatures. While summer tires can maximize the capabilities of high-performance vehicles, they lose traction as temperatures fall even on clear dry roads, and can become outright dangerous in freezing temperatures. In cold weather, their tread can even crack, ruining the tires.


Keep an eye on tread depth


Tread depth is also important in wet or snowy/slushy conditions. The grooves in the tires’ tread are designed to channel away water and bite into snow, but as tires wear, their ability to do this declines. Today’s tires have wear bars in the tread to show when the tire reaches the legal replacement threshold of 2/32”, but performance and safety diminish significantly before this point. In fact, in 70 mph wet traction tests, vehicles equipped with tires with tread depths of 2/32” took 100 feet longer to fully stop than those with 4/32” tread (and were still traveling at 45 mph when the cars with 4/32” tire tread depth had stopped completely).3 For optimal performance and safety, consider replacing tires before absolutely necessary.


Watch for underinflation


Drivers often rely on their vehicle’s TPMS warning lights (tire pressure monitoring system, that illuminates a light resembling an exclamation point inside a tire on your dash) to monitor inflation pressures, but they don’t typically alert until a tire is significantly underinflated (usually by 25% or so).4 But stopping distance, tire life, fuel economy and load capacity suffer well before this threshold. Underinflated tires are also a primary cause of tire failure. Rather than relying on warning lights, it’s best to check tire pressure monthly.5

Be aware that even well maintained tires lose air slowly over time, about 1 PSI per month.6 Cold weather presents a different challenge, as air temperature has a big impact on tire pressure. Every 10-degree decrease in temperature reduces tire pressure about 1 PSI.7 As summer becomes winter, a drop from 80 to 20 degrees means a 6 PSI drop in tire pressure—which can be 20% of the tire’s recommended pressure. Most vehicle manufactures have recommended “cold” tire pressures (the vehicle should not have been driven for several hours or only driven a short distance before checking pressures, as air can heat up giving an artificially high pressure reading).

You can find your recommended tire pressures in the owners’ manual or on a sticker typically found on the driver’s side door edge, pillar or glovebox. (Don’t go by the PSI ratings on the tire sidewall, as they typically show maximum tire inflation ratings, which are usually well above the recommended cold pressures).


Older tires can be a hazard, too


Tire age can be overlooked, as tires will typically wear out from use in frequently-driven vehicles before they decline structurally from age. However, over time, a tire’s rubber compounds can become less elastic, causing cracking and reducing surface grip, which can in turn lead to blowouts and other tire failures. Therefore it’s important to professionally inspect tires after five years and replace them after ten—regardless of wear.8 This becomes especially important on occasional-use vehicles like classic cars, motorcycles, motorhomes & trailers.


Beyond your tires


After you’ve checked and maintained your tires, here are some other steps to put on your checklist:

  • Seeing clearly. Check windshield wipers and wiper fluid. Like tires, windshield wipers are rubber-based compounds, so they may harden in colder temperatures, meaning they cannot conform as well to your windshield causing streaking and poor performance. Make sure windshield wipers are in good working order and replace them as necessary. Check the windshield wiper washer fluid level and type as well. Not all solutions are the same, and some formulas aren’t designed for winter use. Non winter formulations may freeze and leave you unable to wipe away the snow and ice that can block your view.
  • Getting a jump on things. It’s always a good idea to have an emergency kit in your vehicle in case you get stuck out in the cold. Keep in mind that you could find yourself waiting several hours for roadside assistance or a tow. Your kit should always include a thermal blanket and a backup battery or charger for your phone. A battery jump device with enough capacity to allow you to jump your car several times can also be a lifesaver. Many newer models also include LED flashlights and ports where you can charge your phone.

Of course, it’s best to avoid driving in icy or snowy conditions when possible. But when you must drive home in wintry weather, it feels good to know you’ve done all you can do to stay safe. Being knowledgeable about tire type, remaining tread depth, pressure and age, checking your wiper blades and fluid, and packing an emergency kit can help enable you to drive more confidently—and more safely—this winter.


Marcus Maingot is Vice President of Product at Berkley One.