If the midwest snow storm can teach us one lesson, it's that it's never too early in the season to start thinking about winter tires.

"We start encouraging drivers to think about snow tires in September," says John Rastetter, director of tire information at Tire Rack, a prominent national tire retailer.

Even if you weren't among the millions who spent the weekend before Halloween shoveling snow instead of raking leaves, know that winter is upon us and the most important thing you can do to get your car ready is to make sure it is riding on the right tires for the season.

Why snow tires?

While many drivers assume that regular all-season tires are just fine for year round driving, that's only true if you live in a temperate climate. If you live where it snows -- or your area experiences routine sub-40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures -- a set of dedicated winter tires will dramatically improve your safety during the coldest months. While brand new all-season tires can provide reasonable traction during the winter, their performance is roughly equivalent to half-worn snow tires, says Rastetter. Half-worn all-season tires, on the other hand, are unsuitable for winter driving in snow and on icy roads.

Winter tires gain their advantage not only because they have superior tread patterns that are designed for traction on ice and snow, but because they employ "softer" rubber compounds to enhance grip. This winter rubber is designed to perform, not only when there's snow and ice on the pavement, but in cold temperatures on dry pavement. This is why winter tires are not suitable for summer, warm-weather driving, as their softer rubber and more open tread pattern will wear rapidly. Likewise, low-profile summer performance tires are terrible in cold temperatures. All-season tires compromise their winter ability in order to be used during the summer.

Many reasons for, few against

While drivers of rear-wheel-drive cars have long employed dedicated winter tires, mounted on an extra set of wheels for easy changeover, it's only been in the last decade that drivers of front- and all-wheel-drive vehicles have embraced the benefit of such an arrangement. While snow tires help a car get moving on icy pavement -- always the prime motivation for owners of rear-drive cars -- they also help any car to both stop and corner in snow and ice.

Indeed, braking performance is the biggest reason why drivers of front- and all-wheel-drive cars would choose winter tires, as they dramatically decrease stopping distance. Recent tests conducted by Tire Rack saw a 35-percent improvement in braking when using winter tires over standard all-season tires. That is a life-and-death difference.

One of the biggest reasons customers have for not buying snow tires is always cost. A complete set of winter rubber mounted on spare wheels can easily cost close to $1,000 -- or more, for owners of high-end vehicles with large wheels. Yet compared to the cost of an insurance deductible, not to mention the possibility that a good set of winter tires might be the difference between life and death in an accident, the tires make good sense.

The other factor that many drivers do not employ in their "can I afford winter tires?" math is that the use of winter tires prolongs the life of your primary tires. "It may be an extra thousand dollars today," says Rastetter, "but it's going to stretch them out from two to three years of service to five to six years of service."

Think of it this way: Instead of buying two sets of all-season tires over the lifetime of your car, you're buying a set of all season tires and a set of snow tires. Really, the only extra cost is the additional set of wheels.

This brings up another stumbling block that can keep drivers from using winter tires: Storage. "One of the obstacles we see from our customers is the inability to store a second set of wheels and tires," says Don Barnes, marketing director for Belle Tire, a retailer located in the Detroit area.

For some, the clutter of an already packed garage just cannot absorb a stack of tires. But for others -- primarily apartment-dwellers -- having to store tires throughout the year is an impossibility. Then there's the inconvenience of having to transport tires to an installer twice a year, says Barnes. With tires sizes having grown considerably in the last decade, often four tires just will not fit in a small car, meaning more than one trip to the tire shop each time you have your tires changed.

That's why tire retailer Belle Tire started offering off-season tire and wheel storage last year, using the same warehouse it stores new tires in to keep its customers' old ones. Tires and wheels are cleaned and stored in a tote, and can be swapped by appointment at any of Belle's locations. Customers don't even have to purchase their tires from Belle to use the service, which costs $80 per season ($160 annually). Last year, Barnes says, the service was so popular that it sold out, and capacity for this winter has been subsequently increased.

While Belle's service is just one solution in a limited geographic area, we have seen other retailers offering similar plans, including some new car dealers.

No time like the present

Keep in mind that snow tires are not produced year-round like all-season tires, and tire retailers can and do run out of them. That's why it's important to buy new snow tires even before the weather gets cold. The tire industry, like the car industry at large, has been shaken by the recent financial collapse and Tire Rack's Rastetter says there have been spot shortages in the last few years.

"As we get further into the winter season," he says, "there are going to be some shortages."