1 December 2011

Snow chains or winter tyres when driving abroad?

One of the most frequently asked questions at Drive-Alive relates to the use of snow chains and winter tyres when driving abroad. Are they a legal requirement and if so where and when? Confusion also exists about the difference between winter tyres, all season tyres and studded tyres.

Studded tyres are designed to be used in more extreme conditions than normal winter tyres and should not be used when driving on clear roads. UK drivers will not normally need studded tyres and snow chains are a much better option should extreme conditions be encountered.

All season tyres are in effect the same as winter tyres. Like winter tyres in theory they can be used all year round, although they suffer from the same disadvantages in the warmer weather as do winter tyres. They also carry a symbol on their side wall similar to winter tyres.

Winter tyres will carry a snowflake, M&S or mountain symbol on the sidewall. They are manufactured from a different rubber compound to summer tyres (currently fitted as standard to British sold cars). This compound retains its grip in cool temperatures much better than summer tyres, and by cool we mean anything below about 7 degress centigrade. So they are safer not just in snow but in cold weather generally, especially if the road is wet or icy.

The disadvantage with winter tyres is that in the summer they tend to wear more quickly, have a higher rolling resistance so use more fuel, are a little noisier and do not grip as well as standard tyres in hot weather and cost a little more.

In certain European countries (currently Germany and Austria) there is now a legal requirement to use winter tyres during certain months of the year, when driving in wintery conditions. The problem is that on a lengthy journey such as from the UK to go skiing in the mountains it is impossible to be certain whether you will encounter wintery conditions. So if you want to go skiing with your car in those countries you really should purchase a set of winter tyres. Drivers resident in those countries normally have two sets of tyres as standard and they are sold on with the car.

We expect that more countries will make winter tyres mandatory in the future. In Switzerland the current position is that winter tyres are not compulsory but if you do not fit winter tyres and as a result you impede other traffic you could be fined. The tread depth on winter tyres must be at least 3mm (4mm in the Czech Republic).

Snow chains should be carried whether using winter or summer tyres if you are in a country with mountainous terrain. In some countries it is mandatory to use chains when conditions demand and if you do not do so the police can prevent you from continuing your journey. However, you must only use chains when the road surface is covered with snow and must remove the chains as soon as possible to avoid damaging the road.

For more on winter tyres and snow chains please visit the following pages:
Driving abroad
Winter driving in Europe
Winter tyres in Germany
Winter tyres in Austria

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