Last updated June 30, 2022
With winter bringing snow, ice and much lower temperatures, it’s no surprise that driving conditions are very different in the cold months – and often much more difficult. To make these conditions easier to work with, many motorists decide to invest in winter tyres.
So, what are winter tyres, how do they work and should you buy them for your own vehicle? Read on for our answers to these questions and more below.
Winter tyres are designed and manufactured to provide improved traction and grip in cold temperatures. Features such as deeper grooves and narrow cuts built into the tread improve contact with the road surface by helping the rubber move around, whilst diffusing surface water and snow.
Winter tyres are marked with either a snowflake or snow-topped mountain symbol, making them easy to distinguish. M+S (mud and snow) tyres are also available but shouldn’t be mistaken for winter tyres as they have different properties.
Winter tyres differ from summer tyres in three ways and these qualities enable them to handle wintery conditions like rain, sleet, and snow.
Firstly, the tread pattern has many more grooves (sipes), which displace water and help the tyre bite into snow and ice. Secondly, winter tyres are made from a compound with more silica, which keeps them soft and supple in freezing temperatures - this is vital because summer tyres harden in the cold, causing the vehicle to drift due to a lack of friction.
Finally, the rubber blocks on winter tyres vibrate when in motion, displacing snow and ice. Conversely, summer tyres are susceptible to snow and ice build-up, causing the tyre to become completely smooth and lose necessary friction.
The cost of winter tyres will depend on your car’s make, model and the tyre’s quality. As a general guide, however, you can expect to pay somewhere around £60 each for standard quality winter tyres, with premium winter tyres commanding a higher price tag.
Winter tyres are safer when the temperature drops below 7°c due to improved handling and reduced braking distances in cold conditions. The tread stops snow from getting stuck in between, preventing blockages and the rubber has anti-hardening properties.
Independent road safety charity, Tyresafe, conducted a study on breaking distance using summer and winter tyres in various conditions – the results of which are below:
The primary drawback of winter tyres relates to the cost. In Continental Europe where winter temperatures are lower than in the UK, many drivers have two sets of wheels and tyres which they switch depending on the time of the year. This means purchasing four new sets of wheels and tyres, which may become costly.
In addition to purchasing costs, you will need to store your winter tyres during the warmer months and vice versa. If you don’t have a garage or shed, you may need to use a local car garage to store the tyres at a set cost. For example, ATS Euromaster charges £7.50 per tyre to store out-of-season tyres at their ‘tyre hotels’.
In some European countries such as Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Austria, it is compulsory to have winter tyres fitted during certain periods of the year. Failure to comply in these countries is a criminal offence and may land the owner with a fine of up to €5,000.
In the UK, winter tyres aren’t required by law and only a small percentage of drivers make the switch during the colder months. Nevertheless, those who live in more remote areas where roads aren’t as well managed, such as in the Scottish Highlands, may consider using them.
It is legal to use winter tyres in summer, but it isn’t generally recommended as winter tyres wear out rapidly in warm weather. This is because they generate less grip and traction in the heat, making them unsuitable in balmy conditions. Therefore, it’s best to remove your winter tyres when temperatures start to increase in late spring-early summer.
Your insurance shouldn’t be affected by switching to winter tyres, providing the wheels aren’t being changed. If you are changing the wheels and tyres, you may need to tell the insurance company if the wheel diameter, width and offset are different from the manufacturer’s standard equipment. Nevertheless, we recommend checking with your insurance company before making any changes to your car to ensure it doesn’t affect your policy.
All-season tyres are a viable alternative for UK motorists that don’t want the hassle and expense of changing their tyres twice a year. They are designed to give car owners a consistent driving experience all year round. However, the performance won’t be as good as either of the specialist tyres.
All-season tyres combine the properties of both winter and summer tyres and feature a unique tread pattern that provides grip in both warm and icy conditions. The design allows motorists to get an adequate grip on warm, dry road surfaces, whilst not hardening like summer tyres in cold weather.
Driving in wintery conditions can be a challenge and may result in an accident if you’re not adequately prepared. Therefore, it is crucial to prepare thoroughly before driving in snow and icy conditions – the following tips will help to make your journey safer:
It is essential to ensure you plan your route to avoid unexpected delays, especially if you live in an area prone to flooding with poorly maintained roads.
The minimum legal tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm, but you may want to consider higher if you’re driving in poor conditions, such as ice or snow. You may also want to consider winter tyres where the conditions are particularly poor.
Ensure that you can see clearly out of your windows and windscreen before setting off. You should also de-ice your mirrors and check you have enough windscreen wash.
Both sets of wipers need to be in good condition to ensure you can clear any rain or snow. Wipers in poor condition could compromise your view and obscure the road ahead.
Checking you have enough fuel for your journey may sound obvious, but it’s crucial in winter where you may become stranded and accidents are more likely.
You should ensure all of your lights work before beginning a journey, including fog and brake lights, as you’re more likely to need them when visibility is poor.
Breaking down in winter can be more serious than in other seasons. Therefore, having the essentials in your car in the event of an emergency is wise. These may include blankets, jump-start cables, a first-aid kit, de-icer, reflective warning signs and a mobile phone charger.
Driving in poor conditions is inevitably more dangerous; therefore, it is crucial to stay aware of other road users and be cautious when driving in winter. Also, please remember, reducing your speed could prevent an accident.
On average, you can expect to pay around £60 per tyre for winter tyres. However, this depends on the make and model of your car, as well as the quality of the tyres themselves.
If the purchase or storage costs associated with having an entirely different set of tyres for the winter are putting you off, snow chains or snow socks may be useful alternatives to consider. Snow socks are a high-grip fabric cover that can be placed over your existing tyres. Snow chains are a steel alternative that, while more complicated to fit, are harder wearing.
Unfortunately, both can only be used in snowy conditions, so they aren’t direct substitutes to winter tyres. However, they are certainly good to have on hand in the event that you need them.
Winter tyres are designed and purpose-built to deal with icy roads and cold temperatures, featuring fine grooves to cut into snow efficiently.
All-season tyres are designed to be a compromise between winter tyres and standard summer tyres, manufactured using materials suitable for both warm and cold conditions but featuring the same fine grooves to work against snow.
Winter tyres are available from some retailers year-round, though the most effective time to purchase and fit winter tyres is between October and March. This is the window where temperatures are most likely to dip below 7c, when winter tyres are the most useful.
Winter tyres work effectively against snow and ice but are designed for all winter conditions, having been built to withstand low temperatures, frost and gritted roads.