With the unusually warm weather we are having this February, you might be concerned about continuing to use snow tires on your vehicle. Is it safe to drive on them when there is no snow and the temperatures are above freezing?
To answer this question, we should briefly discuss how snow tires — also called traction tires — function and behave differently that regular tires. For normal use, more people opt for all-season tires. These tires are designed to provide solid performance year round, including hot, dry weather, wet pavement, and even wintry conditions. However, it is under more extreme winter weather that all season tires are the least effective. This is because the rubber used to manufacture these tires loses its flexibility when temperatures drop. Because they become harder, they do not grip the road as well.
Modern winter tires are constructed with rubber polymer that is designed specifically to remain more pliable in the cold. Even when temperatures drop well below freezing, these tires remain flexible, allowing them to grab the road more effectively. In addition, winter tires are designed with deeper treads, as well as sipes — tiny slits in the treads of the tires that increase the ability of the treads to grab into snow. While winter tires of years past did not work well on dry pavement, that is not the case with modern winter tires. They work just about as well as all-season tires.
The downside to winter tires is that they are designed specifically for cold weather. As temperatures rise, the rubber becomes even more flexible. Once temperatures rise above 45 degrees F., winter tires become less effective. They will begin to wear much more quickly and also degrade handling of your vehicle.
As a general rule, most people in North Central Washington put on their snow tires around November 1 and take them off around April 1. We’re in a bit of a unique situation here in the Wenatchee Valley because we see less snow and warmer temperatures than the mountains around us. Also, if you live in outlying areas at higher elevations, like Leavenworth or Waterville, you’re more likely to encounter wintry conditions.
While high temperatures in the area have been above 45 degrees the past few days, the forecast is for lower temperatures coming up. So it’s safe to continue using winter tires. Particularly if you plan to make trips that require mountain travel, keeping those winter tires on will give you that added peace of mind. And you never know when there will be snow in the mountains. Having traction tires on will prevent you from having to resort to chains if WSDOT changes conditions to “traction tires required.”
So the verdict? Keep them on for now. A few days of warm weather aren’t enough reason to take them off just yet.