The numbers are in, and they don't look good.
An early-December article in the Free Press revealed only 20 per cent of the vehicles on Manitoba's roads are equipped with winter tires. That's the lowest rate in the country.
It's easy to come up with excuses not to drive on dedicated winter rubber. After all, it's a lot of money up front. Manitoba doesn't have the hills, ice and snow that drivers in other parts of the country contend with. And, of course, this isn't Quebec, so it's not against the law to drive without winter tires. So all you need to do is drive for the conditions and you'll be just fine.
But if there's anything the month of December has taught the residents of southern Manitoba, it's that we can have lots of snow, way too much ice, and that there are plenty of opportunities during winter for inadequate traction to really mess things up.
Browsing through the online comments and letters to the editor related to this article, it's clear winter tires have their proponents, but what is also clear, and quite alarming, is that misinformation about winter tires abounds.
Many write the winter-tire industry off as nothing more than a successful marketing campaign or a cash grab that preys on the gullible, but I can assure all winter-tire naysayers that this is not the case.
My first winter-tire purchase was for a 1989 Nissan 240 SX, a rear-drive car I bought in January 1996 with performance-oriented, all-season rubber that must have just barely passed the provincial safety inspection for tread depth.
The car was totally useless in the slick stuff. Traction was so limited that this student ponied up several hundred of his own dollars to fit a set of first-generation Bridgestone Blizzaks to the car.
When I first pulled away from the tire store and onto Pembina Highway that snowy evening, it only took about five seconds for me to realize this was a completely different car with proper rubber on its wheels.
The point is that I don't sell winter tires, and I certainly don't stand to benefit financially when I tell others to buy them. I recommend them because they make a real difference, no matter what you drive.
Proper winter tires, identified by a snowflake-on-mountain symbol, possess rubber compounds (with secret recipes that are highly guarded by the tire companies) that won't turn to rock when the mercury drops. It's easy to see the difference for yourself: Visit a tire store and push your thumb into the tread of an all-season tire, then into a winter tire.
The other trait common to all winter tires is an abundance of zigzag slits, or sipes, in the tread pattern. These allow further flexing of the tread under load and allow several edges to bite the road surface to make the most of whatever tread is available. These first two traits are key to traction on packed snow and ice.
Beyond that, the aggressiveness of the tread pattern can provide some insight into how the tires will perform in deeper snow and slush.
I typically drive on a different set of winter tires each year, and this year it's the Pirelli Winter IceControl that have been fitted to our 2012 VW Golf Wagon. New for 2011, Pirelli touts them as optimized for icy and snowy conditions.
The best tires for ice will be studded, but along with studs come increased noise and fuel consumption as well as a restriction on entering many downtown parkades due to the damage studs can do to protected driving surfaces.
The tires were first fitted on our car last winter, but anybody who remembers last winter will probably argue it wasn't a real test for winter tires. So I decided to wait until we had some real winter weather before reporting on the tires, and now I'd say winter has happened.
A 20-centimetre dump of snow, followed by a high number of freeze-thaw cycles, ensured surfaces were slick. I found the most influential weather to be the small amounts of snow and sleet that fell in the middle of December, which resulted in glazed intersections and a general feeling that the level of available traction was changing by the second.
The Pirellis have proven themselves very competent in all these conditions, with the exception of glare ice, where only studs would have helped. I've driven on them in deep water and snow, slush, loose snow and ice and found they inspire confidence no matter what the traction conditions.
With my car being a front-drive, patience is still required when accelerating from a stop on icy roads, and in wet weather, the tires are quite noisy, but both these complaints can be applied to most winter tires on the market.
My criteria for evaluating winter tires place snow and ice traction above other factors such as noise, dry-road handling and tire wear. And with those priorities, the Pirelli IceControl tires rank at or near the top of the class for studless winter tires.