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Watching Your Wheels: New Tires and More Safety Tips

Updated on January 14, 2013
Summer tires don't have the grip to handle a snowy road.
Summer tires don't have the grip to handle a snowy road. | Source

If you're like me, you've been lucky enough to go almost your whole life without driving in the snow. The thing about that, though, is that you could be in for a very rude awakening the first time you do—especially if your car isn't equipped with the right tires. The first time I drove in the snow was on a cross-country road trip, and my car was riding the same type of summer tires it always does. What my wife and I learned very quickly, though, was that they don't handle half as well on a snowy Midwestern highway as they do back home in the desert!

Before either of us could say a quick prayer to the Michelin Man, the car was spinning off the road, landing us deep in a ditch and breaking darn near 30 ceramic kittens that we had in the trunk (my wife was a lot more heartbroken about the last part than I was!). The point is, you need to be prepared, so before you go venturing out in the snow, make sure that you throw on a set of new tires, and that they're the right kind.

Summer Tires Vs. Winter Tires

If you think that seasonal tires are just a money-making racket set up by profit-hungry rubber peddlers, think again—you really need new tires when the road conditions change! This is because of two things: The treads and the rubber. Different types of seasonal tires are made to handle different elements, and driving with the wrong kind of tires on your car is like running a marathon in cowboy boots—it's just not right for the job.

Summer tires have the right amount of grip and softness to speed along a dry, hot road and plow through the damp conditions of a summer rainfall. When the temperature drops, though, the rubber gets hard and loses all of its grip—those wheels will slide right across an icy road like socks on linoleum.

Winter tires, on the other hand, are made out of a special rubber that heats up when you drive, so they stay pliable. Since they stay soft, they can grip the uneven road even when it's covered in snow and ice—they're so soft, though, that driving them in the summer can wear them down too fast and force you to keep buying new tires too often.

The Myth of the "All-Season Tire"

If you shudder to think about investing in new tires twice a year, you might be tempted to try all-season tires. After all, how perfect do they sound? Tires that you can just throw on your car and leave in place all year? Sign me up!

Except that it isn't that simple. All-season tires are OK for a variety of driving conditions, but that's all they are: OK. The winter traction you get with an all-season tire is going to be better than a summer tire's, but worse than a winter tire's. Similarly, it may not handle wet roads as well as a summer tire does. Ultimately, all-season tires are a compromise that do everything kind of well, but not much more.

Not Just About Safety

While a poor tire choice can leave you stranded in a snowy ditch with an ornery wife and a trunk full of shattered glass tabby cats, that isn't all they'll do! Tire negligence can cost you at the pump, too. Tires are designed to contact the road in a certain way, and if they don't, it throws off the whole works. Overinflating or under inflating your tires, then, can mean that your car isn't living up to its fuel efficiency potential. Not only that, but the uneven tread wear will make your tires not last as long, and you'll be buying new tires before you should have to.

A wheel alignment can prevent the same problems. When even one wheel is out of alignment, it makes your car encounter uneven resistance—it's like trying to go for a job wearing a sneaker on one foot and a flip-flop on the other! You should get your wheel alignment checked every now and then to make sure that everything is lined up the way it should be. When they aren't, your mileage suffers, and the tire treads wear down at different rates, increasing the likelihood of a mishap like a blowout on the open road.

So What's It All Mean?

The point is, it's easy to take your tires and wheels for granted. If you're riding on the wrong tires, though, or your wheel alignment is off, you're setting yourself up for a dangerous situation. Sure, it may be a hassle to switch back and forth between different types of tires, but if you live in an area where the weather changes with the seasons, you need to be cautious. If it doesn't snow in the winter where you are, of course you don't need winter tires! But boy howdy, if it does snow, you'd better get those summer tires off your wheels before you end up in the same position I was in: Calling the nearest auto repair shop from a ditch!

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