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Getting to grips with stopping distances in the wet and cold weather

Kwik Fit | Friday 2nd February 2018 4:11pm

car tyre on a snow covered road

For the last few years the UK has experienced relatively mild winters, something that has made life easier for motorists up and down the country. However, things are different this year. There’s no doubt that this one’s got off to a very cold start and even snowfall in many parts which inevitably entails travel chaos, schools closing, and the country grinding to a halt. 

Strangely, even with similar – if not worse – weather, a quick look across the Channel we can see life carrying on as normal. So why does this always seem to happen?

Actually, the answer is very simple. In the UK, when it comes to driving, British motorists don’t do winter tyres. This superb technology – that’s become a mainstay on the Continent – is ingrained over their, but simply not in our culture. Typically, most UK drivers don’t know what they are, let alone why they’re a such a good idea to use in the winter months. 

And many of those few who think they know what winter tyres are for i.e. “just driving in snow” are wrong. In fact winter tyres are for driving in cold weather conditions, not just snowy weather. Of course they’re also much better at handling ice and snow than the standard summer drivers virtually all UK drivers retain during the winter months, but it’s not the main reason to use them.

low visibility on snow covered road

Winter tyres are for cold weather driving, not just for when it snows.

With the help of leading premium tyre manufacturer Continental, we’re determined to try and change UK motorists’ attitudes, and help drivers become much more aware of the important role that winter tyres can play in helping to prevent accidents on British roads. At the end of the day, when it comes to the right tyre selection, it’s all about stopping distance.

What is ‘stopping distance’ and why is it so important?

You may have passed your driving test quite a while ago, so if you need a quick refresher, here’s a helpful formula: 

Stopping distance = “thinking distance” (your reaction time) + “braking distance” (how far the car travels after the brakes have been applied until it stops). 

In the warm, dry months of the year this is already an important consideration, but when it comes to wet, cold months it’s even more significant. Did you know that your braking distances can double when driving in wet weather conditions?! In hindsight this may seem pretty obvious, since the road is much harder to grip when it’s covered in water, but what the vast majority of drivers don’t realise is that their braking distances are also affected by prevailing temperature, and tyre type.

Explain to me what winter tyres are

Unsurprisingly, most people typically think that all tyres look the same. In fact on closer inspection it’s clear that there are some visual differences between winter and summer tyres.  And while if you look closely you’ll see that the treads on winter tyres feature a noticeably different pattern which offer more interlocking grip, the real difference in comparison to summer tyres lies in what you can’t see – the difference that really, really matters. Winter and summer tyres are made from completely different rubber compounds. 

How so? Winter tyres are much softer, and as a result this allows them to grip cold roads better than summer tyres. Winter tyres really come into their own when the temperature is around 7°C or lower. At this point their special compound – optimised specifically to perform at their optimum best in cold weather conditions – really perform noticeably better. 

And, while winter tyre are obviously also much better at handling snowy and icy conditions, this isn’t the primary reason for fitting them. No. The main reason for fitting them is so that you can stop quickly – with shorter stopping distances - and thus more safely when you need to in cold weather conditions. 

If you take a moment to watch this short video – which was made in partnership between Continental and leading automotive manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz – you’ll discover just how much of a difference winter tyres make on cold, wet roads, and how in hindsight switching out from summer tyres in the cold months is a no brainer...

Surely all-season tyres can do the job of both summer and winter tyres, right?

Not necessarily. Not every all-season tyre is the same. They can make a lot of sense for some drivers, particularly if you live in a part of the country where winter is pretty mild, and are mainly driven in a urban town or city environment with relatively short mileage, but these conditions don’t fit everyone’s day to day motoring experience. If this form of driving isn’t you, all-season tyres aren’t the right choice.

Continental all-season tyre

However, if this is you’re typical experience, an all-season tyre could be the right choice. So which should you go for? Here, it’s quality that really counts. All-season tyres are – by definition – a compromise solution between the best qualities of summer (warm weather) and winter (cold weather) tyres. Finding the right balance is a real challenge for the tyre engineers and designers. Put simply, if you choose all-season tyres they need to perform:

  • better in warm weather than winter tyres; 
  • better in cold weather than summer tyres; and 
  • well on rolling resistance, to help keep your fuel bills down.

Ultimately though, when it comes to the best possible performance and enhanced driver safety in cold and wet weather conditions, winter tyres will always be superior to all-season tyres. Period.

Speak to Kwik Fit about the benefits of winter tyres

If you want to know more about how to improve your stopping distances in cold and wet weather conditions, or about driver and tyre safety in general, speak with your local Kwik Fit tyre experts. They’ll be happy to provide you with experienced advice, including what’s best for your vehicle, as well as professional fitting solutions and more.


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