Do you live in the “Snow Belt,” that part of the U.S. where a few inches of overnight white stuff is considered a light snowfall? Then it’s time to buy your snow tires. What’s that? You don’t use snow tires? Then let’s bone up on why these specialized tires should find a place on the wheels of your vehicle.

Who Needs Snow Tires? You

Perhaps you drive a vehicle that has all-wheel-drive and consequently you assume that you don’t need snow tires? Or maybe the all-season tires that came on your front-wheel-drive sedan have always served you well? Think that the stability control of your rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan will keep you out of trouble? You might want to rethink your position after hearing my argument for snow tires.

The bottom line is that anyone who routinely drives in snowy, icy winter weather can benefit from snow tires. Modern winter tires are totally different animals from the summer tires or all-season tires fitted to most cars when they come from the factory. Simply put, they are designed for winter conditions, without all the compromises that get made in designing an all-season tire. But what does this mean?

Special Rubber And A Different Design

Typically, winter tires are made of a rubber compound that does not lose its flexibility below 32 degrees. This is important because the rubber compound in a winter tire must be able to move and flex in order for the special tread design to effectively clear the road surface of snow, ice, water, and slush, as well as bite through that muck to gain traction.

This sort of rubber compound is only found in winter and all season tires. It is not found in summer tires, which is why they’re not for use in temperatures under about 40 degrees.

The tread design of snow tires is also different. This makes them much more desirable because they can self clean, channeling water out from under the tire’s footprint, while also biting into ice for better traction. This is accomplished by designing the tread pattern to move as the tire rolls down the roadway. The special rubber compound allows for this flexing, while an ingenious design element called “siping” is utilized on snow treads.

Siping is a semi-segmenting of each tread lug to make it flexible and movable while the tire rolls down the road. It looks like little slits have been carved into the tread blocks. This allows for the tread lug to open and close, causing a pumping and squeegee action, moving water away from the tire’s surface while the tread lug squeegees the road surface.

Some snow tires even have ice cleats built into their tread lugs. These cleats, or “studs,” are sharp metal edges that bite downward into the icy road surface giving you maximum traction on ice covered roadways. They’re not legal everywhere, however, as they contribute tearing up road surfaces much more than normal tires.

Buying The Right Tires

Now as much as this article is written to convince you that winter tires are a good thing, depending on where you live, all season tires might be fine for you. If winter is just a few light dustings of snow in your neck of the woods, then I would say that all season tires would probably work, especially if you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

One of the other big questions drivers have is whether they need snow tires for all four tires? The answer is yes. Ideally, you should put four snow tires on the vehicle because the axle set that has the regular tires on it will not be able to maintain the same level of traction and consequently those wheels will slip and slide.

If the snow tires are on the front, the rear of the vehicle will tend to spin out, which is the worst case possible. If the snows are on the rear, the front will tend to push or slide, instead of turning. So four snow tires are best.

Once you have your snow tires, you’ll have to remember to take them off in the spring. Since snow tires are made of a softer rubber compound with a softer, more flexible tread design, driving them on warm, dry roadways will wear them out prematurely. The siping or semi-segmenting of each tread lug is usually at about a 50 percent depth (sometimes slightly more) of each tread lug. Driving them constantly on dry roads would wear out the tread lugs in a short time.

A Word Of Caution

Lately, there has been concern that some tire dealers are selling tires that have been in stock a long time and the rubber has dried out, making them unsafe. For peace of mind, ask your sales person to show you the date code on the tires. It is usually found on the sidewall close to the rim bead area.

When tires sit for a long time in a dry, warm environment the oils in the rubber dry up. This causes a condition called “dry rot,” causing the rubber to crack, usually close to the rim bead area or in the sidewalls where there is more flexing. This condition compromises the structural integrity of the tire's sidewall and makes it vulnerable to blowout.

Tires are one of the most important safety features on your vehicle. It is vital that you choose the best tires for the roads and climate conditions where you drive.