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Modern winter tires, not studs, best for some drivers

Tuesday, November 7, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

close up of a car tire in the snowStudded tires gouge $29 million out of Washington's road-repair budget each year. But recent high-tech breakthroughs are displacing studs on some vehicles.

For many motorists, studded tires have long been seen as the panacea for winter-driving safety. Advocates say nothing provides better traction on hard-frozen ice, and countless residents who live on hills swear by studs.

Yet the damage they inflict on roadways is proven. That's why Olympia now imposes a $5 fee on each studded tire sold. They're banned in several snowy northern states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, while Alaska and Michigan allow only rubber studs.

So what's the alternative? Spokane's city streets director told the Spokesman-Review that drivers should try the latest tires from Japan, made from rubber that remains flexible enough below 45 degrees to grip the pavement.

Consumer Reports says studded tires don't always outdo new-generation tires that "have more advanced winter tread compounds that stay pliable in the cold." Perhaps stud stalwarts who regularly travel in relatively flat locales should consider modern snow tires with high-tech rubber.

close up of a car studded tire in the snowI suspect my neighbors near our Cle Elum cabin won't switch, though. Our rural community lies on a hillside served by a road that's not plowed by the county. Compact snow and ice covers the road and driveways from Thanksgiving through March. Daytime sunshine often melts the ice till it glistens, then it refreezes solid at night. Only studs or chains spare the residents from being stranded.

That's likely the case for many Oregon and Washington residents who live in colder climates east of the Cascades.

But those who live in milder, rainy locales should note another key finding in studded-tire tests: studs hinder a vehicle's stopping ability on wet roads. Studs require longer stopping distance on wet or dry pavement than vehicles with standard tires, according to the Washington State Transportation Commission, which recommends winter traction tires – those labeled "Mud and Snow (M+S)", "All Season," or with a mountain/snowflake symbol.

car flipped on snowy roadThe final word comes from the Washington State Patrol, which told the Spokesman-Review that the type of tire isn't typically what causes winter accidents.

"It's people going too fast," said Trooper Jeff Sevigney. "Troopers don't run studded tires and we don't have any problems."

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