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The Joy and Terror of Urban Snow Driving

Most Americans don’t bother with snow tires. Here’s your annual reminder that sometimes you really need them.

An intrepid Boston motorist negotiates winter weather in 2015. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

First, since no one got killed, let’s all enjoy this:

My favorite: The salt-spreading truck that glides merrily down the hill at the 1 minute mark, wheels locked, spraying salt its wake.

These are the motorists of Montreal, Canada, normally among the more sure-footed of winter drivers, rendered helpless by a surprise snowfall on untreated downtown streets.

The video went viral yesterday, not only because snow-driving fails are reliable YouTube comedy, but because Montreal, of all places, should be immune to this brand of mockery. The Québécois are stone-cold killers when it comes to winter driving. They aren’t supposed to be bonging around the streets like giant curling stones. The province is one of the only places in North America with a mandatory snow-tire law for all registered vehicles. That, combined with Montreal and Quebec City’s mega-budget snow removal capacity, helps ensure that these two snow-intensive municipalities are among the safer places to negotiate the roads during the winter months. (Even on a bike, since their world-class network of cycling lanes get plowed, too.)

What the hell went wrong here? Well, funny thing about this law: It doesn’t take effect until December 15, which means that early-season snowfalls can catch unwary drivers who have failed to beat the seasonal tire-changing frenzy.

Winter tire technology, like many things automotive, has made enormous leaps since the 1960s, when studded snow tires hit the market and it seemed like most northern-dwelling motorists had a set of set stashed in the garage. Time reported on the snow tire boom back in 1965, when more than 12 million were sold. Studded tires—now outlawed in many areas not only because they tear up asphalt like nobody’s business but because the road dust they kick up can worsen air quality near highways—took the market by storm in the 1970s, when motorists discovered that a set could transform their rear-wheel-drive rigs into unstoppable snowbeasts and allow them to romp though the drifts with impunity. At least, that’s the vibe this period TV advertisement gives off.

Last year, tiremakers only moved about 7 million units of winter rubber, which is 3.6 percent of the U.S. market (in Canada, snows represent 35 percent of the market). The rise of “all-season” tires explains much of that decline; so might the changing snowfall patterns that have left several parts of the country, especially the Pacific Northwest, relatively snow-deprived compared to historical levels (even as other regions have been getting extra flakes).

But, as videos like these show, all-season tires are no match for the elements when Shit Gets Real. Which is why Quebec’s Transport Ministry has required snow tires for all cars and trucks in the province since 2008. Montreal’s wintertime serious accident rate dropped 46 percent after the law kicked in, according to one study.

Should more snowbelt burgs consider winter-tire regulations? Well, the tire industry would certainly appreciate that, but don’t hold your breath. Most Americans appear convinced that the combination of front-wheel drive (or, even better, the increasingly common all-wheel-drive) and all-season tires are sufficient to keep them out of trouble when the white stuff falls. Sometimes, they’right. The rise of safety advances like anti-lock brakes and traction/stability control systems have also contributed to the collective modern neglect of proper cold-weather car gear. But physics has a way of imposing its will on even the mightiest SUV: Just because you can get going in the snow doesn’t mean you can stop.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is the interim editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.