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Living in Ottawa, we all know that winter tires are a fact of life. This climate just doesn’t allow for you to be negligent when it comes to using the proper tires for the season. 

However, despite this reality, there is often still a lot of confusion around winter tires. When should I change them, how do they work, and how few can I get away with? (Spoiler, the answer is four, always four.)

So, as we see the leaves changing colour, and feel the temperature starting to dip, let’s clear up some of the quintessential questions regarding Winter Tires. 

When Should I Make the Switch?

This question is worth getting out of the way early. And, it’s one for which we always hear a wide variety of answers. However, the most worrying response is when people say they wait until the first snowfall. That is entirely too late to be swapping your all-seasons for hardier winter wheels. 

The most straightforward guideline for knowing when to change to your winter tires is to think from Thanksgiving to Easter (which is roughly mid-October until the end of March). Although, the definitive indicator for knowing when to change your tires is the temperature. All-season tires across all brands are rated to 7 degrees Celcius. As soon as the mercury dips below that, your regular tires begin to get more rigid. Once this happens, you lose the ability to stop as quickly, and more generally to control the automobile. Add slush, snow, and freezing rain to the picture and you will soon start to feel at the mercy of momentum.

The good news is that by changing your tires at the right time, you can adequately preserve both sets of tires, so they perform their best in their proper season for several years.

Won’t I Ruin My Winter Tires if there is No Snow or Ice?

The short answer is no. As mentioned above, all-season tires are rated to 7 degrees Celcius. When you get below this temperature, it’s time for Winter Tires. While there are a variety of Winter tires with specialty tread to cut through the ice and snow, the main factor, especially for urban driving, is the flexibility of the rubber. 

What you want to remember is that winter tires are about stoping, more than going. When the rubber becomes rigid, it negatively affects the vehicle’s ability to stop. A car outfitted with winter tires can come to a complete stop 30 to 40 percent shorter than one with all-seasons. This is true if your driving on snow, ice, or cold pavement. Being able to slow the car down, even if you can’t altogether avoid a collision, can be the difference between life and death. 

Years ago, winter tires were designed with a broad chunky trend, with the presumption that it would dig through the snow. As technology has advanced, the focus shifted to sub-zero rubber compounds that allow the tire surface to remain pliable and continue to grip minor surface imperfections, even on black ice. Tread development today is more concerned with channelling melted water away from the tire surface so the rubber can do its job. You will also notice that winter tires tend to be thinner than your summer or all-season tires. This slimmer surface, much like a skate blade, focuses the weight of your vehicle into a narrower connection point with the road. This has the effect of slicing through the ice below and helps prevent hydroplaning. 

Can I Just Put Winter Tires on the Drive Wheels?

The answer to this question is always no. No matter if your vehicle is front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, each wheel needs to have the same variety of tire on it to be safe for driving. To be clear, having just two winter tires is not only less optimal but considerably unsafe. By putting two winter tires on the drive wheels, you will actually notice an increased ability to accelerate in slick conditions. Of course, your ability to stop and control the vehicle from sliding will be significantly impaired. When it comes to all-wheel-drive cars, many people are more likely to delay or go without proper winter tires, believing that having four wheels driving makes the car more secure in slippery driving conditions. The truth is, all-wheel-drive is excellent for getting the car moving. If one tire is stuck, the others will compensate, and this can get you out of some tight spots. That said, four-wheel-drive doesn’t help you bring the car to a stop, nor will it help you regain control if the four wheels start to slide. 

When Should I Replace My Winter Tires?

Like all tires, the winter variety has a life span. If your tires are worn out, they won’t be able to keep you safe on slick winter roads. At the end of each season, your car care specialist can advise you on whether your tires have another winter left in them. The rule of thumb, though, is you don’t want to let your tires erode beyond the 50 percent mark. After that, you will notice longer braking distances and your ability to steer the vehicle through corners will be hampered. The official line from Transport Canada is that tires worn close to 5/32″ (4 millimetres) should not be used on snow-covered roads.

Tread Depth for Winter Tires

  • Brand new – 12/32″
  • 25 percent worn – 9.5/32″
  • 50 percent worn – 7/32″ – Replace Tires 
  • 75 percent worn – 4.5/32″
  • 100 percent worn – 2/32″

While many winter tires will have a wear-guide stamped on the tire, there is a quick way you can check them yourself using a Toonie if you don’t have a tread gauge. 

Place a Toonie in the tread. If it touches the bear’s paws, your tires are probably new. If the tread only covers the silver outer ring, your tires are approximately 50 percent worn, time to get new ones. And if the tread reaches only halfway into the letters (‘CANADA’ or ‘DOLLARS’), your tires are not safe and should be replaced immediately. Check out this fun video that the Alberta Automobile Association did on how to check your winter tire tread with a toonie. 

What are the Rules for Winter Tires in Quebec?

Given how close Ottawa is to Quebec, and with several people working here living across the river in Gatineau, it’s essential to know what Quebec’s winter tire law means for you. For anyone with a vehicle registered in Quebec, you are required to have Winter tires on from December 1 until March 15. If you are caught without them, the fine varies between $200-$300. The law does not apply to Ontario registered cars. However, just because it’s not mandatory doesn’t mean you are not putting your safety at risk by driving without proper tires on your vehicle. In Ontario, the Government has legislated insurance companies to provide discounts for customers who use winter tires, so make sure you inquire about how your tires can affect your premium.

When you operate a car, it’s imperative for your safety and everyone who shares the streets with you that you keep it maintained. Seeing as your tires are the point where your car makes contact with the road, they have a direct impact on how much control you have while the vehicle is in motion. Regular preventative tire maintenance can save you money in the long run and help protect you and your family.