Are You Rolling on the Right Tires?

With cooler weather here, a crucial choice must be made: should you buy winter tires? Some may need them, but for others, it’s a waste of money. Before you go shopping for brand new tires for the winter, here are a few things you should know: What kind of tires are on your vehicle now? What size tires are they? Are they worn out? Keep reading to find out more things to consider!

What season are your tires?

There are three main kinds of tires found on your average vehicle; all-season, summer, and snow. Knowing which kind are on your vehicle can be done with just a glance. All tires are certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Beyond the tire size and speed rating, the NHTSA also rates treadwear, traction, and temperature ratings.

  • Treadwear – An average tire is rated at 100 for treadwear, or how long the tire’s tread lasts under normal conditions. Higher numbers equal longer wear; lower than 100 and the tires wear out quickly.
  • Traction – Rated AA, A, B, and C, with AA being the best. This indicates how well the tires stop in a straight line on wet roads. Anything under C is not legal for use on the road.
  • Temperature – Rated A to C, this shows how heat resistant your tires are. A is the most resistant.

Winter tires aren't rated by the NHTSA per say, however they do meet standards of characteristics like tread pattern that are commonly accepted in the tire industry to be best for winter driving. Some will be marked with “M+S” meaning mud and snow—great for your average winter driver. For more extreme climates, you’ll find an image of a mountain with a snowflake molded into the tire. This indicates a tire designed for lots of snow and steep inclines. Winter tires will have a lot of tread blocks with a lot of sipes, small slits that create more tread surface. More tread equals more road noise. Drive past a big off-road vehicle and you can hear how loud the tires are alone.

Summer tires are going to use a harder rubber compound. They’ll have a high traction rating and a high temp rating. Most vehicles don’t need these. Even the cars that can use them, i.e. sports cars, probably won’t be driven in a way to make the tires useful. Summer tires also lack a lot of treading. Smoother tires grip dry roads better: more surface-to-surface contact.

All-season tires are middle of the road. They’ll have a tread pattern that can grip in rain and snow, but not so aggressive as to create a lot of road noise when driving. Most people will be fine on all-seasons—great for commuting and running errands around town.

Are they the right size?

The size codes should read the same between seasonal tires. There is a lot of information hidden in that code: width, aspect ratio, construction, wheel size, and performance. If you’re looking for winter tires, everything but the performance should be exact. You can go up or down a little on the aspect ratio as long as the tires still fit in your wheel wells.

Do you need new tires?

More than likely, your vehicle came with all-season tires. All-seasons are engineered to be a great all-around tire from warm, dry summer drives to cold, snowy winter commutes. Tires wear out, and worn out tires are dangerous.

Most modern tires have “wear bars”—small, raised lines in the grooves of the treads. When the treads are worn down to those bars, the tires need to be replaced. You can also buy tread gages at almost any auto parts store. Another trick is to place a penny in the tread; If Lincoln’s head isn’t covered by tread, it’s time to get new tires.

Check a few spots on your tires, too. Tires don’t always wear evenly and that can be a sign of a bigger problem with your vehicle.

The takeaway.

Keep an eye out to make sure your tires aren’t too worn out, and swap between summer and winter tires, depending on the season, if it’s necessary for you. Safe tires are the first line of safety between you and dangerous road conditions. A good set of tires is always a better investment than replacing your vehicle or, worse yet, hospital bills because of an accident.