Winter tires aren’t all about snow.
While the tread design is important when roads are covered, cold temperatures can render the rubber on your car unsafe on completely dry surfaces.
The compounds used in three-season performance tires found on many high-performance cars and even all-season tires aren’t optimized for low temperatures, let alone the deep freeze traveling across the country with Winter Storm Elliott this week.
The material starts to go through what’s known as a “glass transition” that turns the pliable rubber into an “inflexible plastic” when temperatures reach the 40s, according to Tire Rack.
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Science Direct explains that it has to do with the repositioning of carbon chains, which can cause the rubber to “behave like solid glass.”
This can increase braking distance and negatively affect cornering performance.
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The effect is typically more dramatic for the high-performance tires, which are formulated to work at high temperatures, but all-season tires can drop to 10% of their capability at zero degrees, according to Discount Tire.
True winter tires are marked with a symbol that looks like a three-peak mountain with a snowflake in it.
If there is snow, the tread pattern on a winter tire is specifically designed to perform better on it, and some non-studded tires have “bite particles” incorporated into the compound to help add grip on ice, all of which can cut braking distances down by half compared to an entry-level all-season tire.
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Regardless of what kind of tires you have, one more thing to be aware of is that with every 10 degree drop in temperature the pressure in the tire lowers by about one psi, according to Consumer Reportsso it’s important to check them and keep them at the recommended pressure for maximum performance.