Getting a safe grip on the European winter

Feb. 14, 2013

With weather patterns around the world getting even more unpredictable, European winters have become harsher and more extreme in the past couple of years. It is therefore hardly surprising that there has been a significant increase in calls for winter tires to be used not just in Europe, but in the UK as well.

Of course European winters do not come close to winter conditions in some parts of North America, but they have been more erratic and severe enough to make the industry think seriously about the fitment of winter tires for part of the year.

Let’s look at some facts and figures for a moment. The European winter tire market (which includes the UK) increased by over 50% between 2009 and 2011. During last year around 100 million tires were sold throughout Europe with almost 35% being winter tires (or cold weather tires as they are known in the UK).

In fact, industry statistics reveal that in 2011 around nine million winter tires were sold, mainly for high performance vehicles and 4x4s and SUVs, an increase of 80% from the previous three years.

It is also interesting to note that drivers in Europe are six times more likely to be involved in an accident when driving in winter conditions with snow and ice.

Unlike some other parts of the world where seriously harsh driving conditions are accepted as an annual hazard, some European motorists (and particularly in the UK), simply do not prepare for winter conditions even though in some countries such as Sweden, Austria, Germany, Finland and Luxembourg fitting winter tires is a legal requirement.

By far the situation in the UK is much more serious where there is a disturbing lack of general awareness about winter driving. Those who do know the benefits of switching to winter tires often complain these tires are too expensive.

However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel on this matter. At the moment a campaign of winter driving awareness is being supported by a number of automotive organizations and tire retailers including the Society of Motor Manufacturers and ATS Euromaster.  Supporters are approaching almost 40 of the largest car and van manufacturers urging them to consider changing their traditional policy of always fitting summer tires on new vehicles. It is being suggested (perhaps even gently demanded) that drivers are given a choice of having either winter or summer tires fitted when ordering a new factory built vehicle.

At the moment many thousands of new cars and vans are delivered to customers during the winter months on rubber that is only suitable for use in summer conditions. With the latest compound technology in tread designs enabling shorter stopping distances on wet and icy roads at low temperatures, it is my opinion that this situation should be taken beyond just a gesture for vehicle producers toward making it compulsory for drivers to at least be given the option of choosing winter tires in the UK.

At least in Europe there appears to be a growing trend toward winter tires being fitted to all vehicles. It seems at the moment, Poland, Turkey and Belgium’s respective governments are currently considering making winter tires legal whilst the EU Commission is also debating introducing new laws of the same nature. It has also been suggested by the European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers (ETRMA) that new legislation could be introduced by the EU later in 2013.

There is also growing speculation that a broader mandate may be considered in 2014 with the possibility of countries including Denmark, France, The Netherlands and the UK being forced to have mandatory winter tires.

So, all being well, the 2013/2014 winter season in Europe could prove to be the turning point where all vehicles are finally fitted with winter tires.    ■

John Stone has been working within the global tire industry for the last 20 years. In 2004, he launched his own company, Sapphire Media Services, as a business media consultant. Stone also writes for tire and automotive-related publications in Europe, South Africa and Asia.