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Driving Tip of the Moment:

Winter Driving, Part II

There was only about an inch of snow that had fallen, but it was the first snowfall in the New York City Tri-State area in December 2004, and it wreaked havoc with the highways on a Monday morning. Among the many accidents, there was a report of a Ford Explorer that had run off the Long Island Expressway and plowed into a wall. The driver was pretty shook up, but he was otherwise OK. The reporter asked him how it happened. His answer: "I guess there was some ice. I don't really know what happened..."

And the day before, there was a 70-car/truck pileup on the interstate in Pennsylvania near the Ohio border. It was a snowy Sunday, in low visibility, and an 18-wheeler had jackknifed causing a dangerous chain reaction of three more crashed jackknifed trucks intertwined with dozens of cars, bringing the highway to a halt for the entire day while rescue teams worked tirelessly to get accident victims to the hospital. Miraculously, no one died. Note the car squished in the photo with the hood open is an E46.

[Damaged Vehicles in Snowy Pileup on I-80]

These are typical stories for the first snowfall of the season. Every winter, we face the real possibility of getting into a car accident due to inclement weather. More than any other season, we are at the highest risk in the winter. Ironically, some BMW owners still believe the hype that "BMWs are bad in the snow" and store their beloved cars in their garage until springtime. Others drive their cars, with their all-season tires, holding onto their steering wheel with a nervous death-grip, praying for the springtime. They are thankful for such computers like ABS, DSC+T, and ASC, all working in concert to keep us going in the right direction. With such inadequate tires, the computers are working overtime to maintain our BMWs' stability, cutting power to the engine and applying brakes more efficiently than our human brains can possibly manage. But the computers can only do so much. The rest is up to us and our tires.
[A Vehicle Caught under an 18-wheeler]

If you have to drive all winter, tires are everything. Anyone who tells you that you don't need snow tires, even in the New York City area, doesn't know what they're talking about. I suppose you can take a chance that we'll have a mild winter, and simply not drive on the days that it snows. But if you recall the first snowstorm in New York in December 2003, dumping 12 inches of snow on the entire region that lasted for weeks, that's a pretty unlikely strategy. The good news is that there are currently so many competent snow tires on the market that handle well and wear well that it is inexcusable to drive around for those 3 months of the year on summer tires.

The question is: what type of tires should you use? Well, like all tire questions, it's often a matter of personal preference, particularly when considering brands. But certain things are clear and indisputable:

  • use four snow tires, not two; this is not your parents' Oldsmobile.
  • make sure the size you use is the narrowest available for your car; check your owner's manual for recommended sizes.
  • don't mix tread patterns or tread widths; all four tires should be the same brand, model, and size.
  • in regions south of New York City, like in southern New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina, where they experience frequent ice storms, winter tires that are specifically sold as "ice tires" may be preferred.
  • since the predominant weather in our area is snow, not ice, a deep-tread snow tire is highly recommended.
  • it's best to use one set of wheels for your winter tires and one set of wheels for your summer tires; if you're not sure you can justify the cost, consider the cost of replacing your car if you get into an accident this winter.

And don't be fooled into thinking that SUVs are better in the snow than cars. Driving your 3, 5, or 7-series (M-cars not included) in the winter allows you to take full advantage of that nearly perfect 50-50 weight distribution and low center of gravity. When you put snow tires on a car with these characteristics, you create a car that can get through virtually any snow, and that car will be balanced enough to stop safely and competently, which is a life-saving characteristic no SUVs can share.

I tend to trust the Scandinavians when it comes to snow tires.* Color me simple, but I find that people that have to live in cold climates much of the year tend to know way more than me about living, driving, and surviving in snow and ice. I have found that Nokian Tires serve my purposes the best. Yes, Nokia, the mobile phone manufacturer from Finland, got its start by making tires, which they still do today. Their snow tire brand is called Hakkapeliitta, and I have driven and raced on these tires for many years. They are the de facto standard for those in the know. You can learn more about their tires at their website: In fact, if you visit their website, you'll learn about a very clever mechanism that will alert your mobile phone (presumably Nokia) if the air pressure in any of your tires drops below a certain level. Pressure-monitoring systems are becoming more readily available on today's high-end cars - I don't know if I'd want to be interrupted by a call on my mobile phone while I'm zipping down the highway at 100 telling me one of my tires is low on air... or would I?

[A Minivan rolled over on I-80]

Those of us that aren't satisfied to read the Roundel and watch the Speed Channel all winter long can race our BMWs on frozen lakes instead. There are plenty of venues within a few hours of New York City, not much further than places like Lime Rock or Summit Point, but they're all north of the city, of course. And you'll be surprised at how much car-control you will learn while having fun maintaining your racing skills over the winter months.

And finally, just a tip about how to hold the steering wheel when driving in snow and ice: Hold it with both hands, but don't hold it with a death-grip. Hold it with enough dexterity to keep your fingers in contact with the steering wheel, but not too tightly. This way, you will not be inclined to make abrupt steering changes that can disrupt the stability of the car. You will be better able to anticipate when the road becomes icy and the car starts to slip; it will help you maneuver through these conditions without overreacting. Good luck and safe driving!

[* I am not a crook. I am not a vendor or seller of tires or automotive parts; I do not benefit financially whether you buy snow tires or not; at the time of this article being written, I am not currently a member of the NYBMWCCA Board and do not get a kickback if you buy Nokian Tires; I am not running for any elected position. I am not running from anyone either; I am not beholden to anyone or any organization. I buy my Nokian tires from Pat Greer of Greer Enterprises outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin (+1 800 325 2598) and he's always been great to deal with!]
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Steven Jay Bernstein
updated Wednesday, 22 November 2006 6:06:21