In areas of Western Europe, it is quite common, and sometimes a legal requirement, for motorists to keep two sets of tyres - one for winter and one for summer.
- Standard ‘Summer' tyres stiffen up when the temperature drops low.
- Winter tyres use a different rubber (with a high silica content) and a tread pattern which is more flexible in lower temperatures – below +7C – to give better braking and steering handling performance on ice and snow as well as on damp roads in colder conditions.
- Winter tyres are marked with a symbol showing a snowflake or mountains.
Winter tyres are suited to all year-round use, but summer tyres will perform better when temperatures rise, so you will need two sets of tyres if you're going to choose specialist tyres for winter.
Why don't we have to use winter tyres on our cars?
There are very good practical reasons why winter tyres aren't compulsory:
- In many countries only rarely experience the sort of weather conditions that would justify the extra cost.
- Many motorists choose not to use the car when it’s very icy and snowy.
So which motorists should purchase winter tyres?
Winter tyres make sense if you live in a remote area where the weather conditions are likely to be extreme.
Elsewhere in other regions it may be harder to justify the cost, though this must be a personal decision based on these factors:
- The risk of very poor weather
- The motorist’s confidence when driving,
- How much you have to drive in these conditions.
You can keep the same wheels and get a tyre fitter to swap your tyres twice a year – summer to winter in the autumn and winter to summer in the spring – or you can buy a second set of wheels.
Some suppliers sell winter tyres that are pre-fitted to steel wheels:
- Steel wheels are far cheaper than alloy wheels.
- You may have to switch to a different type of wheel nut or bolt – check with the supplier or car manufacturer.
Two or four?
If you're going to switch you'll have to buy four new winter tyres. Fitting only one pair will upset the overall stability of the vehicle.
Winter wheels and tyres are quite an expensive option so you might want to think about carrying snow chains for emergencies instead. However, snow chains can be awkward to fit and remove in the cold with gloved hands and wheel arches packed with snow.
Tyres of all seasons
All season tyres use similar rubber compounds to winter tyres but have a tread pattern somewhere between a normal summer tyre and an out-and-out winter tyre.
They should work better on wintry roads than a summer tyre and avoid the cost and hassle of swapping tyres twice a year.
Tread pressure and depth
Whether you've got summer or winter tyres fitted, they must have enough tread – at least 3mm is recommended for winter, and certainly no less than 2mm.
There should be no need to notify your insurer if you fit winter tyres to your original wheels.
The speed index is still likely to exceed national speed and isn't checked as part of the car MOT test.
If you use a second set of wheels for your winter tyres you shouldn't need to tell your insurer as long as the wheels are of the correct specification:
- Check your handbook for wheel and tyre sizes suitable for your car.
- Wheel diameter, width and offset must all meet the vehicle manufacturer's spec.
The Association of British Insurers published an excellent commitment setting out the position of some named insurers on premiums and winter tyres.