April 2, 2010 in City

Studded-tire tax is a non-starter

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The path driven by commuters on South Monroe Street shows the type of wear that studded tires can contribute to.
(Full-size photo)

To our readers

We’re launching a new column today by veteran Spokesman-Review reporter Shawn Vestal. Vestal’s choice of column topics will be driven by important or interesting developments in our region and written in a more personal style than a typical news story. In his 10 years at the S-R, Vestal has worked in the Idaho bureau, been an assistant city editor and covered higher education. His column will appear on Wednesdays and Fridays on either the front page or in the Northwest section, depending on the subject.

It is a measure of the political force field surrounding studded tires that in this, the bleakest of times for state budgets, no one is trying to slap a tax or fee on the things.

Raise the sales tax? OK. Freeze salaries and cut services? Sure. Jack up tuition outrageously? All right.

So why not a rut tax?

Washington spends an estimated $15 million a year fixing up those stud ruts, and that doesn’t touch what’s spent in cities and counties. There isn’t any question about the source of that damage, and there are plenty of questions as to just how much good studs do. And in a winter like this one, the gap between their usefulness and the damage they cause is acute – the studs are simply grinding away at concrete and asphalt.

But you could not choose a bigger political loser than banning or taxing studs. It is nowhere among the options that lawmakers are debating as they wrangle over the final details in filling a $2.8 billion budget hole. You might as well run on the pro-income-tax ticket.

Efforts to eliminate or limit the use of studs have died a wide variety of deaths in Olympia, stretching back to the 1980s. Suggest a ban, and there’s a decent chance that someone, somewhere will at least hint that you’re a baby killer.

That’s especially true in Spokane, the state’s studliest city. The most recent state surveys showed that 32 percent of Eastern Washington drivers used studs; in Spokane, it was more than half. Those figures are seven years old, and have likely come down. Still, they suggest there is more to this than simple necessity. Spokane has worse winters than Seattle, sure, but not Republic or Colfax.

This comes down to something else. It’s almost superstition.

“When people are in the car and encounter a potentially life-threatening situation and end up with a bare-knuckle experience, and they attribute their (survival) to studded tires, no amount of information is going to disabuse them,” said Chris Marr, Democratic state senator from Spokane. “This is not totally a fact-based discussion. This is how people feel about their safety.”

Marr was the last guy to propose banning the studs. His bill last year met the same fate as the previous efforts: a quiet death. Or maybe not so quiet, given that it was preceded by the kinds of unfathomably strong opinions that come along with the subject.

We dig the studs, or a lot of us do. Marr says his mom is devoted to them. My own home is half and half. The studded half, I have to admit, probably could not get up our steep driveway a few days each winter without them.

Beyond that, though, I’m unpersuaded about the necessity. Scientists have found a pretty tiny range of circumstances in which the grinders actually help: smooth, icy conditions at about freezing temperatures. In those instances, studded tires really knock it out of the park, significantly improving a driver’s ability to stop and start. That’s according to research done in 2002 and 2003 by a pair of Finnish scientists.

But those conditions are awfully rare.

On icy roads in colder weather, studs are no better than snow tires. On snow, no better. On wet and dry roads, they’re worse – actually increasing stopping distances.

But this is an old song, and not that many people are really singing it anymore, especially in Olympia. If we’re going to allow the studs, it seems only fair that the people who use them ought to pay for the damage they cause. Especially now.

That’s not gonna happen, though. Studs are sacred. So get used to the ruts, if you’re not already. And get used to paying for them.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at shawnv@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5431.


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