Winter Tyres In The UK: Do We Need Them?

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Early 2020 is forecast to see temperatures 0.5ᵒC colder than the average UK winter: we can expect plenty of ice, and although snow is not guaranteed, it’s unlikely we won’t see some over the winter. In the light of the heavy snowfall of recent years, this leads many to think carefully about their vehicles and wonder whether it might be worth investing in winter tyres. The question is, what are they, and are they worth it?

What Are Winter Tyres?

Countries that experience heavy winters make winter tyres compulsory at certain times of the year. Austria, Sweden and Germany all have laws regarding winter tyres, but in the UK, we are less prone to snowfall, and as such, there are no regulations around them here. Tread depth on winter tyres begins between 8mm and 9mm (ordinary tyres have a tread depth starting between 7mm and 8mm). Tyres designed for winter have deeper, wider grooves to create a larger space for water and snow to travel through, ensuring that the vehicle has good grip on the road; they contain a higher percentage of silica and natural rubber than regular tyres, which doesn’t harden in cold weather in the same way that synthetic rubber does, further improving the tyre’s grip. The tread blocks are covered with small slits (known as sipes), which increase the surface area against the road and further secure the grip in icy conditions.

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Are Winter Tyres Worth It In The UK?

Winter tyres certainly improve safety in icy conditions, and can result in a braking distance improvement of 8m, as well as improved grip on the road. They’re generally considered effective when temperatures fall below 7ᵒC, which is common during the winter in the UK, so they do improve safety for drivers between October and March when the weather is at its coldest, even if it isn’t icy. For drivers in remote areas where there’s a risk of being cut off during bad weather, they may be a worthwhile investment. However, for drivers who usually use urban roads, although safety may be improved, the investment may not be so worthwhile. Drivers opting to fit winter tyres should do so in advance of the bad weather – October would be a good time to do this. In countries where winter tyres are compulsory, they’re generally removed around March.

Does Four-Wheel Drive Make A Difference?

It might be easy to assume that an SUV would tackle snow well, but the majority sold in the UK are fitted with summer tyres. When the SUVs have four-wheel drive, it’s easier to get the vehicle moving again in slippery conditions, but when they have regular tyres, they have the same difficulties with braking in the snow as any other car. Off-road vehicles are less likely to get stuck in snow than road models, and sports models, designed for speed, are likely to have high-performance summer tyres, which certainly aren’t an advantage in icy conditions. SUVs and crossovers that don’t have four-wheel-drive offer no advantage in the snow unless they have a specialised snow mode, which will minimise the likelihood of the wheels spinning.

Whatever vehicle you drive, if you bought it in the UK, you’re unlikely to have winter tyres, and the type of vehicle will make little difference to its performance in bad weather. Safety improvements are seen when the weather reaches its coldest, so it certainly isn’t pointless to invest in winter tyres. However, with no laws insisting on it and with weather conditions rarely reaching those seen in places like Austria, winter tyres aren’t essential for driving in the UK.

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