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In Europe many drivers keep two sets of wheels and tyres - one for summer and one for winter
In many parts of mainland Europe it is common, or even a legal requirement, for drivers to keep two sets of wheels and tyres – a set of 'summer' tyres and a set of specialist 'winter' tyres.
Winter tyres use a tread rubber compound (high silica content) and tread pattern specifically designed to retain flexibility in low temperatures (below +7C) and give good braking/traction performance on snow/ice as well as on wet roads in cold conditions .
The sidewall of a winter tyre will be marked with a symbol showing a snowflake or snow-topped mountains.
Winter tyres are not really suited to all year round use though – summer tyres will give better performance when temperatures are higher and roads dry – so you'll need two sets of tyres if you're going to choose specialist tyres for winter.
There are several practical and economic reasons:
Winter tyres make sense if you live in a remote area where winter conditions are likely to be worse for longer.
Elsewhere it may be harder to justify the cost, though this has to be a personal decision depending on the risk of bad weather, your confidence when driving and how much you have to drive when snow and ice are around.
Winter tyres are made by most of the main manufacturers. Some suppliers will provide these pre-fitted to a set of steel wheels too.
If changing from alloy wheels to steel wheels you may have to change the design of wheel nuts used too. Ask the wheel supplier or car manufacturer for advice.
Winter tyres must be fitted in sets of four. Fitting only one pair will affect the balance and stability of the car.
As an alternative you could consider buying 'All Season Tyres' which also have a high silica content for low temperature flexibility and a tread pattern somewhere between a normal summer tyre and an out-and-out winter tyre. Like all compromises they're unlikely to be as good as the best specialist tyre but can be expected to work better on wintry roads than a summer tyre and you will avoid the hassle and cost of swapping wheels/tyres twice a year.
If winter tyres are just too expensive you might consider carrying snow chains for use in an emergency.
Snow chains are of limited use in this country though because you can only use them where the road surface is covered in a protective layer of compacted snow/ice.
Snow chains can be awkward to fit and remove in the cold and when the wheel arches are packed with snow and your gloved hands are cold and wet.
If you fit winter or all-season tyres in place of your standard 'summer' tyres there should be no need to tell your insurer – even though the speed index might be lower.
The lower speed index is still likely to exceed all national speed limits by a considerable margin – with the exception of some German autobahns – and is not checked as part of the passenger car MOT test.
If you follow the standard European practice of keeping two sets of wheels, one with winter tyres and one with summer tyres, then you shouldn't need to tell your insurer as long as the winter tyres are fitted to wheels of the correct specification.
Over the winter of 2010/11 we did hear reports of some insurers increasing premiums or remarkably even refusing cover if winter tyres are fitted. As a result we recommend talking to your insurer if you are considering fitting winter tyres.
Motor insurers recognise that some motorists may wish to fit winter tyres to their car during cold weather. Motor insurers recognise that, whilst no substitute for common sense driving, winter tyres can have a positive impact on improving road safety.
To assist in reducing potential uncertainty, the ABI has produced a commitment setting out the position of a number of named motor insurers in respect of the impact on insurance premiums of fitting winter tyres to your car.
It's important to check the list of insurers as some require that you inform them if winter tyres are fitted even though there is no effect on premiums or cover.
Whatever tyres you fit they must have enough tread – at least 3mm is recommended for winter, and certainly no less than 2mm.
Check tyre pressures too but don't be tempted to try reducing pressure when there's snow and ice about – it doesn't help with grip and can affect handling.
(updated 9 November 2012)