Ontario and Winter Tires

The debate continues whether the province should make winter tire mandatory when the temperature starts to drop.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald November 10, 2020

The first two people I am about to talk about are past tense, so you’ll just have to take my word for Just What Was Said.

In early December 1976, the roads in and around Toronto were in a mess because rain had turned to ice when the temperature plummeted. The police lost count of the number of crashes.

That weekend, I was at a Christmas cocktail party and in conversation with the legendary Star publisher, Beland Honderich. I asked him why thousands of Toronto motorists had suddenly forgotten how to drive. “Snow tires,” he said, flatly. “By December, everybody should have snow tires on their cars. Do that and we wouldn’t have had the nonsense that took place on the roads this week.”

A few days later, I was talking to my pal Ted Blachar, who worked on the city desk at the Star. He was originally from Thunder Bay and loved to talk about growing up in the north and learning to drive when there was two feet of snow on the ground.  I told him what Honderich had said.

This was his reply:  “He’s wrong. For snow tires to work, you have to have snow. Snow tires would have had no better grip on those streets of ice than the tires we use in summer. What people need are all-season radials. They would have solved the problem.”

Ten years ago, or so, I went to interview the retired racing driver, Richard Spenard, who is very much alive these days. He was in Toronto on behalf of Michelin and wanted to talk about what are now called winter tires. He emphasized that whether there’s snow on the road or not, is immaterial. If the temperature dips below 7 degrees Celsius, you should have winter tires on your car.

“If you want maximum grip under 7° C.,” he said, “winter tires have a compound that stays soft and flexible and has deeper grooves that will grip the road better than summer or all-season tires. You get better cornering and better braking on snow and ice with winter tires.”

It seems that most Canadians are in agreement. Polls show that. But be that as it may, Quebec is the only province in the Dominion to have a winter tire law. Quebec requires all its registered cars to have winter tires mounted between Dec. 1 and March 15 or face a $300 fine. (B.C. requires cars being driven into the mountains to have winter tires but that’s not everybody.),

Since 2008, when the law was enacted, road deaths in Quebec have fallen by about half. But Ontario’s fatalities have also declined at about the same rate, suggesting better road and car construction have also had an effect because only 70 per cent of Ontario’s drivers, most of whom live in the southern part of the province, have winter tires on their cars or light trucks.

Be that as it may, unlike Quebec, Ontario has no plans to mandate winter tire use.

“Ontario has given careful consideration to mandating the use of winter tires in the province,” said a spokesman for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney. “Due to effective snow-clearing operations and the fact that not all vehicles need to be operated every day under winter weather conditions, winter tire use remains at the discretion of Ontario’s vehicle owners.”

Of course, there’s something else at play. Conservatives don’t like telling people to spend money, particularly when it comes to things they might not want, like a second set of tires.

“The additional cost of two sets of tires, having to change them twice each year, storage requirements and the impact on the environment are all factors that require careful consideration before mandating the use of winter tires,” the Mulroney spokesman said.

But just about everybody from the CAA to the better driving schools (not to forget Richard Spenard) suggest you’re safer with winter tires on your car than you are without.

It’s like wearing masks in public in the fight against COVID-19. Although there are differing schools of thought about whether they are effective or not, I think it’s better to wear a mask than to go without one.  Same with winter tires. Why take a chance? If you can afford to own and operate a car, you can’t afford not to have winter tires.

Why? Because some manufacturers, Hankook, for instance, subsidize the price of winter tires through rebates and your insurance company, after encouragement from the Ford government in 2016, will knock some dollars off your car insurance premium. Every little bit helps.

So it’s a win-win: you’re safer and you’re saving money. Nothing gets much better than that.

Norris McDonald is a retired Toronto Star editor who continues to write about automotive issues and motorsport.