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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Thoughts on winter

Even though this winter has been mild when historically considered, it’s presented plenty of challenges for area drivers.  And while wintry conditions are waning, they will continue to affect us for awhile.

Maybe drivers would get more accustomed to snow and ice if we had more of it, but I’m still amazed that with each succeeding road compromise (frost, freezing rain, snow, frozen fog, black ice, et cetera), many drivers fail to cope.

I always hope that after the first couple freezes drivers will become alert to the presence of winter, adjusting speeds and sharpening skills to accommodate it.  Nevertheless, whenever roads get slick, drivers end up putting vehicles in ditches, spinning across center lines and causing chain-reaction calamities.

Though reducing speed is a prerequisite for negotiating slickened roads with marginal adhesion, it’s only one of many “tools” in a driver’s winter “toolbox.”

“Reading” the road surface is paramount.  Knowing the exact condition of the surface your tires are about to roll upon is an important skill to develop.  A good driver must learn to identify the “slick quotient” of various surfaces and know how their vehicle reacts to them.  Black ice often appears the same as an only-wet road, though the adhesion differential is drastic.  Performed ideally when it won’t affect other traffic, a quick brake stab-and-release can confirm or disprove the presence of ice.  Also, outside temperature indicators are invaluable in making such determinations.

Loose snow, packed snow, frost and ice all have differing degrees of adhesion, even changing with varying temperatures.  Snow-covered roads are generally much more slippery at 32 degrees than at 20 degrees, for example.

Speaking of adhesion, since tires are your only contact patches with the roadway, they should be high on your winter-preparedness list.  Depending on where, when and how much you drive, there are a few options.  Tires marked M + S or All Season are a minimal must, but virtually useless for winter traction with less than 5/32nds of an inch of remaining tread.  Winter-specific snow-tread tires are the best choice for all around traction.  Compared to “summer” or performance tires, winter tires have a softer rubber compound, more aggressive tread and built-in sipes, offering optimum traction on frozen surfaces without being inadequate on dry and wet roads.

Some argue that tungsten-studded tires have an advantage on ice, although many real-world studies refute that notion.  One certainty, as implied above, is that studded tires have less traction on wet and dry roads than even the cheapest non-studded tires, resulting in extended stopping distances and marginal cornering grip.

Again, tread depth is a qualifying winter traction factor, regardless of tire type.  New tires start with tread from 10/32nds to 12/32nds of an inch deep.  A winter tire with only 4 or 5/32nds of an inch of remaining tread will likely have less snow traction than an all-season tire having 10/32nds tread depth.

Nationally, all tires become illegal when reaching 2/32nds of tread depth, and in Washington, M + S tires are not legal as “traction tires” for crossing mountain passes when they fall below a depth of 4/32nds.

State of vehicle maintenance is important for winter, especially fresh oil, adequate anti-freeze, strong battery, working lights, paint protection and a good-running engine.  Clearing snow from your vehicle before departing is a worthwhile practice too.  That not only helps you see (clearing windows) and be seen (clearing snow from lights), but avoids potential peril to others.

And failure to clear snow can cause more than a blinding snow-mist for drivers behind you, as reader J.H. noted when he wrote, “Last weeks recent snow brought me face to face again with too many drivers who don’t clear snow/ice off their vehicle.  Perhaps they feel it will just blow off no harm but for those whose cars sit through a slight warm cycle and then freezes again that snow becomes large chunks of ice that become serious projectiles flying off towards other cars on the highway.”

Good sense coupled with a reasonable degree of caution and a prepared vehicle will help us successfully negotiate winter.  Let’s work on that approach for the balance of it!

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at