Is it time to take a fresh look at studded winter tires? These are the power tools of winter driving: when roads turn icy, nothing works as well as a studded tire, with its metal teeth biting into the surface.
Last winter, I tested a state-of-the-art studded tire: the Nokian Hakkapelita 8. Technically, this made me an outlaw – in Ontario, you aren’t allowed to use studded tires unless your address is in the northern part of the province.
Ontario banned studs in 1972, after a technical review determined that the studs used at the time were causing extensive road damage. In 2005, the province modified the law to allow studs in northern regions between October and April, as they are in Manitoba and Quebec.
Studded-tire technology has come a long way since then. The Hakkapelita 8s are high-tech winter driving tools, with lightweight studs that are set in a multilayered tire casing. The base of the metal studs are set in a soft inner layer that acts as a shock absorber, cushioning the blow when the studs strike a hard surface. This helps the studs grip better, and reduces road damage.
And these new-school studs provide incredible grip on icy surfaces. While other cars slipped, my Hakkapelita-equipped Honda was stuck like Velcro. But there was a downside. When the roads were clear and dry, the studs produced more noise than a tire without studs. The Hakkapelitas were far quieter than the studs my father used in the 1960s and 1970s, but the sound was inescapable, and more than once, heads turned as I rolled up.
But the safety advantage was obvious. I first tested the Hakkapelita 8s on a frozen lake in Finland, and their stopping and turning performance was head-and-shoulders above every other tire. Back in Canada, they also proved superior in the mixed conditions of a Toronto winter, although their advantage was less significant when the roads were covered with snow instead of ice.
In non-icy conditions, I prefer a tire like the Nokian’s Hakkapelita R2, a non-studded winter tire designed for superior performance in cold conditions. But when things turned icy, the studded Hakkapelita 8s had an undeniable advantage. This prompted me to think about whether it’s time to reconsider studded tires for southern Ontario, which experiences extremely high crash rates every time it snows.
Would studded tires save lives? Yes. But so would mandatory winter-tire use. In Quebec, where winter tires have been mandatory since 2008, winter collisions have fallen by 17 per cent, and crashes causing serious injury or death are down 36 per cent. In the Greater Toronto area, countless drivers refuse to use winter tires, assuming that all-season tires are good enough. They aren’t. When the temperature falls below 7 C, the rubber compounds in summer and all-season tires harden, reducing their grip. Winter tires are designed to stay soft in cold temperatures. This is the secret of their superior grip.
When the Ontario Ministry of Transportation decided in 2005 to approve studded tires for use in Northern Ontario, it explained why the studded tire ban would still apply in the southern part of the province: “Residents of Southern Ontario are not permitted to use studded tires because most roads are well-maintained with fewer extreme hills and turns,” the MTO said.
“Also, the traffic volumes are higher and many pavements are made with local limestone that is softer than the Canadian Shield rock in the north. While there have been improvements to studded tires, allowing them in these conditions is expected to result in pavement damage, dust and reduced air quality. Therefore, the scope of this proposal remains specific to Northern Ontario residents only.”
Maybe it’s time for the province to reconsider. The south does have higher traffic volumes, but it also has extremely high crash rates during winter. It’s time to mandate winter tires – and to rethink the studded tire issue.