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Snow joke

As temperatures and snowflakes start to drop across Canada, safety- and cost-conscious fleet operators are strategically swapping their all-seasons for winter tires.


October 10, 2011
by Kara Kuryllowicz

Canadian Automotive Review, Print Edition: SEPTEMBER 2011

As temperatures and snowflakes start to drop across Canada, safety- and cost-conscious fleet operators are strategically swapping their all-seasons for winter tires.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, the driver’s control of the vehicle is determined by the tires’ traction or ability to grip the road surface, rather than by systems such as traction control or anti-lock braking. Efficient braking, stability when braking and staying on the right track when turning all depend on the small area of tire that touches the road. Each tire’s contact patch is about the size of a postcard, miniscule relative to the size and weight of the vehicle.

The friction between the tire and road surface is affected by the rubber composition, the tire’s construction and the tread design. As a result, you want the rubber hitting the road to be the right rubber for the conditions (cold, snow, ice) with the most appropriate construction (radial) and tread. Rubber grips because it’s flexible, but an all-season tire’s rubber starts to harden around 7˚C and the process accelerates rapidly below -7˚C with its grip virtually vanishing below -15˚C. A new winter tire tends to lose its elasticity as temperatures approach -30˚C or lower. Because each tire manufacturer uses a different rubber compound, it’s best to check the product specs before committing to any winter tire.

“If the temperature drops below about 7˚C, you need winter tires to improve traction and stopping and handling characteristics, regardless of snow and ice,” says Glenn Maidment, president of the Rubber Association of Canada.

Winter tires using a cold-resistant rubber compound as well as snow- and slush-eating treads are still relatively new, having been introduced just 10 to 20 years ago. In 1999, the US Rubber Manufacturers Association and the Rubber Association of Canada agreed on a performance-based standard and mountain-snowflake, severe winter traction icon to identify passenger and light truck tires that attain a traction index equal to, or greater than 110, (compared to a reference tire rated 100) during specified American Society for Testing and Materials traction tests.

Say no to snow
“Today’s winter tires are as much about the rubber as the tread and snow tires are such a misnomer that at Goodyear, if you say ‘snow tire’ rather than ‘winter tire’ in a meeting, you pay a one dollar fine,” says Mike Cosentino, consumer category manager—Canada with Goodyear Canada in Toronto.

Canada Safety Council tests showed vehicles with winter tires were able to complete a slalom course that proved impossible for those with all-season tires and they also stopped in half the time.

“It’s best to say yes to winter tires for most of Canada, because saying no can put a company at risk if something happens and winter road conditions and tire choice come into play,” says Jim Forbom, vice-president of client services at Foss National Leasing in Thornhill, Ontario, which manages about 68,200 vehicles across Canada. “We recommend equipment that is safety-related and in Canada, during the winter, winter tires are safer than all-season tires, increasing the health and safety of the fleet driver, other drivers, passengers and pedestrians—all without increasing fleet costs.”

Of course, driver behaviour plays a key role in winter road safety, for example, increasing the distance between vehicles, slowing down, letting people know you’ll be late and rescheduling meetings. Unfortunately, drivers tend to focus more on “Will I get stuck?” than “Can I stop in time?” or “Will I make it around that corner without spinning out?”

While fleets as well as safety and government organizations offer a variety of winter driving tips, winter tires are a passive safety feature that needn’t increase fleet costs. Since most fleet vehicles will go through two sets of tires per life cycle anyway, Forbom suggests fleet managers buy a set of winter tires every time they purchase or lease a new vehicle.

“Do it this way and your costs remain the same because you’re still buying a second set of tires over the three years, the only difference is that the second set are winter not all-season tires. You don’t need to debate the pros and cons of winter tires or do the complex cost-benefit analysis,” says Forbom. “You’ll have to mount and dismount twice a year, but it’s the perfect time to do the brake inspection you should be doing anyway.”

Yet despite those compelling arguments, with the exception of Quebec, Forbom still sees many different approaches when it comes to fleets’ winter tire policies which seem to mirror the average Canadian’s approach to them.

Only in Quebec
In 2008, Quebec mandated that all taxi and passenger vehicles must be equipped with winter tires from December 15 to March 15. Apparently those winter tires do make a difference because post-legislation, fatal and serious-injury accidents declined by 36 percent (46 percent in Montreal) and accidents with bodily injuries fell 17 percent between December and March.

Previously, it would appear that vehicles with all-seasons were involved in more than their fair share of winter accidents. For example, in the winter of 2004/05, Quebec police found that in 38 percent of the fatal and serious accidents for which such information was available, at least one of the vehicles involved was equipped with all-seasons although 71 to 89 percent of all Quebec vehicles did have winter tires.

An April 2011 Transports Quebec study concludes: “The message is clear: During the cold season, winter tires should be considered basic equipment, in the same category as defrosters and the heating system…”
Despite the safety benefits experienced in Quebec, Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer at the Ministry of Transportation for Ontario, said, “We have no plans to implement the mandatory use of winter tires at this time, although winter tires are recommended for those who drive in consistent winter weather conditions.”

According to the Rubber Association of Canada, only about half the Canadians who drive cars, vans, pickups and SUVs use winter tires. The commitment to winter tires varies regionally, with virtually all Quebecois using them.

However, winter tire usage in other regions of Canada falls off dramatically with the Maritimes at 53 percent, Ontario at 37 percent, Prairies at 27 percent and BC at 23 percent. Although winter tire usage is increasing, with more and more drivers acknowledging safety and performance benefits, Canadian drivers have a way to go.

Why the mounties get their man
Notably, regardless of snowfall and location, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police equips approximately 30 percent (4,500) of its 13,800 vehicles (6,200 cars/7,600 SUVs, pick-ups, vans) with winter tires because police need to arrive at the scene of an accident, riot or other emergency as soon as possible. Across Canada, the RCMP’s regional fleet managers decide whether the remaining 70 percent of the “non-pursuit” vehicles get winter tires.

“Policing is dangerous and we have to make it as safe as possible for our 26,000 drivers and the general public,” says Richard Panneton, national manager of land fleet with Assets Management & Programs at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa, who relies on tire makers to present the latest technologies at the annual national meeting of senior fleet staff.

“Prevention is everything! In many cases, drivers’ vehicles are their workplaces,” adds Panneton. “Winter tires are cheap compared to the cost of an accident which can involve health care, the redeployment of personnel, repairs, replacement vehicles and increased insurance costs even though the RCMP is self-insured.”

As one of the RCMPs garage managers before becoming the RCMP’s regional fleet manager for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Filipe Mendes got plenty of driver feedback on a cross-section of winter tires such as the Goodyear Ultra Grip and Bridgestone Blizzak. When a quality rubber compound is used in a winter tire, the rubber acts like a suction cup on the ice.

“Drivers really noticed and appreciated the extra control,” says Mendes, who notes that the Public Works and Government Services of Canada has negotiated significant price breaks with tire makers via National Standing Offers. “Because the weather differs so much from region to region, each detachment selects the tire that best suits local conditions and determines the appropriate installation date.”

Timing is everything
“Put the winter tire on before the first snowfall because the cold weather reduces traction and the initial snowfalls are the slipperiest because there is no salt or de-icing residue left,” says Raynald Marchand, a long-time fan of winter tires and general manager, programs, Canada Safety Council, an Ottawa-based, not-for-profit, non-government organization.

In most parts of Canada, slush is more common than snow, ice or dry pavement, and is 11 times more slippery than dry pavement.

Maidment, Marchand, Panneton and Mendes all stress the need for a winter tire on every wheel, whether you have front-wheel, rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, because just two, front or back, will make it more difficult and dangerous to stop while increasing the likelihood of a spin.

“Putting winter tires on either the front or the back is like wearing a different shoe on each foot,” says Panneton. “It’s like putting one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake—each set of tires is travelling at a different speed.”