Winter, or cold weather, tyres have been available for many years, though they have only become a popular fitment for UK fleets in the last decade. As the name suggests, winter tyres are more suitable for lower temperature use, though not necessarily for snow. Typically they offer improved grip and stopping power than a standard summer tyre at temperatures below 7°C.
Winter tyres are made from different compounds that don’t harden as much as a summer tyre at lower temperatures. The tread blocks tend to be more distinct too, allowing the tyre increased grip as the roads get colder.
Tyre manufacturer Continental claims that a car braking from 50km/h on snow will stop in 35m with winter tyres, while taking up to 45m with summer rubber. Likewise on ice, a vehicle travelling at 30km/h can expect to stop in 57m with winter tyres or up to 68m with summers.
Winter tyres are a legal requirement in many European and Scandinavian countries, including Germany, Austria and Finland, with compulsory fitting from October through to March or April. Worth remembering if any of your vehicles travel abroad.
Should fleets fit winter tyres?
The gamble for fleet managers, is how bad do you expect this winter to be? Winter 2013/4 was far warmer than 2012/3, with mean temperatures well above the long-term average at around 5.2°C, compared to 2012/3’s figure of 3.3°C. Many will remember noticeably colder spells in both December 2012 and January 2013 though, with considerable snowfall that brought many vehicles to a halt.
Last winter that just didn’t happen, indeed in many parts of the South there was no snow at all and hardly any ice or frost. But a winter tyre isn’t just for snow and ice, it is designed to cope with temperatures lower than 7°C, which we certainly did have last year. Winter tyres also work well in wet weather and last winter was nothing if not wet. In fact it was the wettest winter for England, Scotland and Wales, and the equal wettest in Northern Ireland, since 1910.
Rising fleet demand
‘Despite a relatively mild winter our sales of winter tyres increased by 25% in 2013 compared to the previous year, which we believe is down to better preparation by fleets for the unpredictability of the British weather,’ says Peter Fairlie, group sales director of tyre supplier ATS Euromaster.
‘We are expecting a higher than ever demand for winter tyres during winter 2014/15 to match the growth seen for the last three consecutive years.’
That increasing demand means that fleet managers shouldn’t leave the decision until stocks of tyres run low. Indeed for larger fleets the sooner the better.
‘We recommend medium to large fleets, which could require anything from several hundred to several thousand tyres of a particular brand and size at the same time, plan ahead and place their orders in the spring,’ says Mr Fairlie. It’s a message echoed by Michelin UK’s head of sales Andy Fern, who says: ‘European fleets order their winter tyres from us in March and April, so we have plenty of time to get them ready for October. Sure, that mentality is driven by legislation in some countries, but not across the board.
‘The demand for winter tyres in the UK is still predominantly reactive to the weather, as soon as drivers see ice and snow on the ground they want winter tyres. Fleets would do much better to be guided by the calendar and proactively fit them in October.’
There are plenty of UK fleets that have adopted a winter tyre programme, particularly blue lights, utilities and delivery companies.
‘Approximately 80% of UK winter tyre sales go to fleets and corporate vehicles, and around 80% of those are van tyres. It’s fair to say the majority of fleet customers using our Agilis Alpin winter tyres are emergency services and delivery businesses who rely on their vehicles whatever the weather,’ says Mr Fern.
Though larger numbers of tyres might not be instantly available, from manufacturers or tyre suppliers, it is not too late for smaller firms to follow suit.
‘I don’t think that fleet managers have missed the boat,’ says Goodyear Dunlop communications manager Kate Macnamara.
‘We generally work to when the clocks change, as a time to change tyres and fleets with very high performance vehicles really need to fit winter tyres, as the drivers will expect the same level of performance throughout the year. In terms of blue light services we have certainly seen increases in demand.’
‘Each of our centres has access to winter tyre stocks currently, but we expect high demand and it’s unlikely there will be large volumes still sitting on the shelves once winter arrives in earnest,’ says Mr Fairlie.
It’s a similar story for the manufacturers.
‘In terms of tyre stocks, winter tyre production cannot be ramped up at short notice should a UK winter prove to be extreme,’ says Mr Fern.
‘If fleets who haven’t pre-ordered early let us know in September that they want a certain number of winter tyres in October, we’ll do our best to source the stock they require in time. If they give us a call in the second week of December because they’re snowed in, then they are seriously jeopardising their chance of success.’
It is perhaps still too early for anyone outside the Met Office to predict how severe this winter will be. However few fleet managers can doubt that, even if it doesn’t snow, there are advantages to winter tyres. From a Duty of Care point of view, it would be hard to argue against their fitment.
‘While we might not have had as much snow and ice in the last couple of winters, there are always a significant number of days when the temperatures are seven degrees or lower,’ says Mr Fern.
‘That’s when winter tyres give the best performance. They don’t guarantee you’ll avoid an accident, but they significantly reduce the risk.’