Making sure your tyres are ready for winter

Tyre talk

At this time of year, the seasonal blizzard of tyre safety messages risks going right over drivers’ heads. Yes, we know tyres are the only thing between our car and the road, and that checking tread depth and air pressures at least once a month is vital.

But last year, 200 people were killed or seriously injured on UK roads in 2012 as a result of dangerous, illegal or under-inflated tyres, and 170 motorists were convicted every week for driving on defective tyres ‒ so while we may know these things, not enough of us appear to be acting on them.

So, in the interests of a happy festive period (rather than one blighted by a fatal crash, a life-changing injury or a stiff fine), allow Driving to clear a path through the tyre safety blizzard courtesy of a short quiz, designed with the help of TyreSafe, a leading tyre safety organisation, to test your knowledge of the subject.


What’s the minimum permitted tyre tread depth?

Across the central three-quarters of the tyre, and around its entire circumference, the minimum tread depth allowed is 1.6mm. In reality, it’s probably best to change your tyres when they’re at 2mm. Turn the wheels to full lock so you can get a good look at each tyre’s inner shoulder. You’ll be amazed how often this often overlooked area can resemble a slick tyre from a Formula One car.


What’s a quick way to check the depth?

Insert a 20p coin into the main tyre grooves. If the coin’s outer band is visible, the tread is probably at its limit. Also, scrutinise the wear indicator blocks between the grooves. They are 1.6mm high. Don’t be confused by those winter tyres that have additional blocks set at a height of 4mm. These conform to Austria’s minimum tread depth requirement for winter tyres.


What are two signs of incorrect tyre pressures?

Because of the way a tyre is constructed, excessive air pressure pushes the tyre centre outwards, leading that area of the tyre to become more worn than the shoulders, or edges. The opposite is true when the tyre is under-inflated. Because warm air expands, check pressures when the tyre is cold.


What is “tracking”?

This is the process of adjusting your wheels so they point in the same direction. Hitting a kerb or a pot hole can knock them out of alignment, causing accelerated wear on your tyres’ inner and outer edges. If you recall having an altercation with said kerb or pothole, keep your eye on the condition of the tyre’s shoulders. If you see slight feathering and loose rubber, the tracking is probably KO’d. Most garages won’t charge if re-alignment is not necessary, while the typical £25 (or up to £50 if you have all four wheels checked) they may charge if it is, is probably a small price to pay on a car whose tyres could each cost over £200.


Should I fit two new tyres to the front or rear?

Surprising this, given that in a front-wheel-drive car the front wheels do the steering, the driving and most of the braking, but the advice is to fit them to the rear. This is because new front tyres will have so much grip that they risk generating oversteer (where the car turns in too tightly). This, in turn, could cause the back of the car to swing out in a corner, a difficult situation for drivers more used to safe, “understeery” cars, to deal with.


Are budget tyres a good buy?

Obviously it depends on the size of your wallet but if they’re all you can afford, they’ve got to be better than premium tyres with next to no tread. However, you won’t enjoy the key benefits that more expensive tyres bring, most notably sharper steering and handling responses, a quieter ride and improved wet-weather performance.


What’s the fine for driving with illegal tyres?

At its worst you’ll be hit with a £2,500 fine, and three penalty points for each illegal tyre. This is especially pertinent to new drivers who can have their licence revoked if they receive six points in two years ‒ the equivalent of driving on two illegal tyres.


What three factors does the new tyre labelling scheme consider?

The new labels rate a tyre’s fuel efficiency, wet-braking performance and exterior (rather than in-cabin) noise levels. They look like the information stickers you see on washing machines and other white goods. Hitherto, most of us have based our choice of tyre on how much it costs. With the arrival of the labelling scheme, motorists have, at last, some hard facts to go on.


How much shorter can a car fitted with four tyres rated A (the highest) for wet-weather braking stop from 50mph, than one fitted with G-rated tyres? 

Up to 18m, or around four car lengths.  As winter digs in, it could be the difference between having Christmas Day lunch at home, or in hospital.


Nerdy but smart

Matt Richardson swears by winter tyres

Recent bad winters have opened drivers’ minds to the benefits of putting winter tyres on their cars. Popular on the continent, those who use them claim they provide levels of traction on ice and snow akin to a four-wheel drive. Their secret lies in a denser tread pattern, and in the tyre compound itself which contains more natural rubber and silica than a standard tyre. This prevents the tyre hardening in temperatures below 7C, helping to keep it supple and grippy.

Typically, however, winter tyres have a lower speed rating than your car’s summer tyres. Because of the different levels of grips that might result, manufacturers advise motorists never to mix summer and winter tyres.

Driving’s picture editor, Matt Richardson, wouldn’t drive in winter without them, as he explains:

“Swapping to winter tyres may sound nerdy, but living in a country village on the side of a steep hill it is almost an essential without a Land Rover. By keeping a cheap set of wheels, bought second-hand, fitted with cold weather tyres, making the switch from summer to winter wheels takes me only a few minutes and doesn’t require any special equipment, other than a jack.

“The positives are obvious. As soon as the weather drops below 7°C the winter tyre’s softer rubber, with its stickier compound, has more traction than “normal” tyres. Should a sudden snow flurry descend I won’t be caught short wishing I had snowchains. As I use them only for a few months at a time, I can spread their initial cost over several years.

“But I’ve found there are some things you should be aware of in making the switch. Many cars come with run-flat tyres which have hard side walls. Winter rubber is a softer, more flexible compound so there is more give in the tyre. This makes the car softer riding, which you may notice in a change to its handling. Cars with run-flat tyres will not have a spare wheel, so you may want to find a space saver and jack to fill the empty slot in the boot – assuming there is one. And not all wheel sizes are catered for. Some manufactures don’t recommend using low-profile winter tyres on larger rims, so you may be forced to downsize for winter.”