Drivers in Germany change to winter tyres when temperatures start to plunge, but is it worth spending £500 on a set in Britain?
Drivers across Britain could this weekend experience that terrifying feeling as they brake on a snowy or icy road, but find their car fails to stop, instead gliding along beyond their control. Yet for about £500, investing in a set of winter tyres could cut accidents and give you much better grip on the road.
In Germany and many other continental countries winter tyres are a legal requirement. Here, the Scottish government has set up a working group to consider if they should be heading down the same route.
But in the rest of the UK winter tyres are a bit of a mystery to all but Jeremy Clarkson-type anoraks. It is estimated only 3% of car owners in Britain have winter tyres fitted – maybe because few people realise they are not just for snow but can cut accidents in wet and cold conditions as well.
Manufacturers say drivers are better off with winter tyres whenever the temperature dips below 7C. As they are made of a different rubber compound (a high silica content which makes them softer) and tread pattern (more sipes, or small slits, in the tread blocks), they grip the road better and allow you to safely brake on snow and ice. Tyre maker Continental says that a car travelling at 31mph will take 43 metres (141ft) to stop on snow using standard tyres, but just 35 metres (115ft) when fitted with winter tyres.
Snow and ice sends the accident rate rocketting in the UK. One in four drivers has been involved in a motor accident in snowy or icy conditions, according to figures this week from Santander Car Insurance, with men twice as likely to be involved in a prang than women.
Interest in winter tyres tends to take off during a major cold snap, such as that in January 2011, when Kwik-Fit said its entire 50,000 stock of winter tyres sold out across the UK. But while manufacturers would love us all to buy two sets of tyres, the cost and hassle inevitably deters most British drivers. Plenty who buy during icy conditions complain later they have had relatively little value from the tyres.
It’s not just the purchase price (typically about 10% more than standard summer tyres) but the process of fitting them, and if you don’t have your own garage, storing them when not in use. In Germany, drivers tend to swap summer tyres for winter ones in October, then back again at the end of March. Those who have garages can store them relatively easily, but city dwellers often have no choice but to use tyre “hotels”.
But advocates of winter tyres argue that while you have to spend more to buy two sets of tyres, they will, of course, also last twice as long. It also means drivers, particularly in rural areas, don’t necessarily have to fork out for a four-wheel drive vehicle – winter tyres bring the roadholding of a four-wheel drive to a two-wheel drive vehicle for a fraction of the cost. Storage costs about £60 per summer, Kwik Fit says, which will keep your tyres for six months at a cost of £15 per tyre.
But is it really worth it? Money took winter tyres for a long-term test drive, and we’ve been impressed – though perhaps not enough to part with £500. I live in Saxmundham, East Suffolk – hardly snowy Salzburg, but a rural area where car dependency is high and where driving conditions have been hazardous over the past week.
I had my car fitted with winter tyres from Continental in December and have been impressed with the extra grip, even in wet and slushy conditions. Infact, they are generally far “grippier” even in normal wet conditions, but you do notice a higher level of road noise, particularly in rain. However, the “slide factor” known to be a problem with vehicles such as mine is no longer in evidence, and the tyres have given me an extra level of security and confidence.
Severin Carrell, the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, is a convert to winter tyres after initial resistance on the grounds of cost. “As part of my job I have to travel across some of the trickiest roads in the UK in often quite hairy conditions – heavy rain in high winds, surface water and icy conditions are commonplace across much of Scotland, particularly in the winter,” he says. “I’ve had minor skids and aquaplaned alarmingly at times; colleagues of mine have gone off the road while, ironically, covering weather stories.
“I was initially reluctant to pay the £320 or more one needs for a set of winter tyres, but after the particularly poor winter in 2010 decided they were essential. Even for family drives and holidays they have proven their value: I’ve found the car cuts through standing water far more safely, without aquaplaning, traction generally is far greater, and I can climb steeper roads in icy and snowy conditions with remarkable ease.”
Further south, although snow is relatively infrequent, the Met Office last year reported 147 days out of 365 between the end of October and March when the temperature dropped to less than 7C.
A spokesman for TyreSafe, a not-for-profit organisation which is one of the UK’s leading tyre safety and campaigning organisations, said: “We are in favour of winter tyres because they are, without doubt, much safer. But British drivers don’t understand how they work because they are simply not on their radar. When Britons even think of winter tyres they think of tyres with studs, which is wrong. There is a lot of misinformation out there and lots of myths around much higher costs and practical issues.”
But others are less convinced. While UK motoring groups generally recommend their use on safety grounds, with plenty of online advice for drivers, they are not pushing for their use to be mandatory, recognising that they are not suitable for all drivers.
Transport Scotland has set up a working group to look at winter tyres within the wider context of driving in snowy and hazardous conditions, but in England there has been no lead from the government.
A spokesman for the AA says: “Winter tyres make sense if you live in a remote area where winter conditions are likely to be worse for longer. Elsewhere, it may be harder to justify the cost – though this has to be a personal decision. Lots of people decide simply not to drive in bad weather. Those living in urban or built-up areas may be able to use public transport instead.”
Typical British apathy does not help. As an RAC spokesman says: “There is nothing like a cold snap to make British drivers show an interest in winter tyres, but by then it is too late. We definitely recommend them on safety grounds, but appreciate that with the current high costs of motoring due to punitive fuel prices etc they may not be a priority for everybody.
“At the end of the day, it is a personal decision for an individual to make. But we would like to see tyre manufacturers come forward and make the safety case for them more strongly – perhaps with a dedicated marketing campaign.”Consumer group Which? carried out an investigation into the tyres last November testing the performance a range of tyres as well as comparing costs. A spokeswoman said: “Our position varies depending on what part of the country you live in as they are more useful in Scotland and the north of England than the south, so we are aren’t able to give a definite for or against winter tyres.”