The law on winter tyres...
I was recently asked the question: Is it a legal requirement for foreign visitors to have winter tyres on the continent? Having done a lot winter touring in France, Germany and Switzerland, my immediate reaction was: “not to my knowledge, the roads are generally cleared quickly, we just use chains when indicated on mountain passes and getting into snowbound campsites”
However, a quick Internet search reveals that there is indeed legislation in most European countries - in Germany and the Czech Republic, quite recent legislation - though getting a definitive answer is not simple as different sources give different interpretations!
Suffice to say that if you are travelling to the Continent, and particularly to Germany or Austria, in what are defined as the winter months (typically from the middle of November to the middle of April - all countries vary and local conditions apply), you should definitely have tyres that carry the appropriate markings: either the “M+S” symbol, or the “mountain/snowflake”.
This obviously presents a conundrum for UK motorhomers, when, as we do, they travel for long periods abroad. Our typical six month trip may start in the Alps in winter and end on the Mediterranean in summer, and the prospect of carrying another set of wheels and tyres, or even tyres, is out of the question.
But ignoring the law could be expensive as well; not just a fine from a friendly traffic policeman after a cursory inspection, but worse and more expensively still, fines and insurance repercussions, or even prosecution, following investigations after an accident!
What is the current legislation?
The list below is compiled from the Automobile Association: www.theaa.co.uk,
the German motoring organisation ADAC: www.adac.de,
and the German website, “Winter tyre duties”: www.winterreifenpflicht.de,
Andorra: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.
Austria: From 2008, Winter or All Season tyres are mandatory for vehicles up to and over 3.5 tonnes, including foreign vehicles, from the 1st November to 15th April, and at other times in ice, snow or slush conditions, and must have a minimum depth of 4mm. Chains to be carried and used when indicated, but only if the road surface is not damaged. Fines will be levied for violations. Also, the use of Daytime Running Lights is mandatory regardless of the time of day and visibility.
Czech Republic: Mandatory since October 2011. Minimum tyre tread 4 mm
Finland: Winter or All Season tyres (marked with the M&S symbol) are mandatory from the 1st December to 28th February and must have a minimum tread depth of 3mm. Chains are permitted. Fines are based on net income and start at the equivalent of about 75 euros.
France: Winter tyres recommended on all roads, but are mandatory on roads designated by “Pneues Neiges” signs. Chains to be carried and may be used as an alternative when “Pneues Neiges” is indicated.
Denmark: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.
Germany: From December 2010, Winter or All Season tyres (marked with the M+S or Snowflake symbol) are mandatory in wintry conditions – including foreign vehicles! Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Contraventions will be punished by a fine of 40 euros, or 80 euros if contravention leads to an impediment of traffic flow. In the event of an accident, those driving without suitable tyres could be accused of gross negligence.
Italy: Winter or All Season tyres are mandatory from 15 October to 15 April in the Aosta Valley and other times if conditions dictate. Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Provinces can introduce their own legislation making the use of winter tyres and snow chains compulsory and roads may be barred to cars without winter tyres on an ad-hoc basis.
Latvia: Winter tyres are mandatory from 1st December until 1st March.
Norway: Winter tyres recommended. Chains to be carried and used when indicated.
Slovenia: Winter tyres are mandatory between 15th November and 15th March and when wintry conditions indicate. Tread depth must be at least 3 mm. Snow chains must also be carried.
Sweden: Winter tyres, (marked with the M+S symbol) with a tread depth of at least 3mm are mandatory from 1 December until 31 March for Swedish registered vehicles and also for foreign registered vehicles!
Switzerland: Winter tyres mandatory. Chains to be carried and used when indicated. Vehicles not equipped to travel through snow and which impede traffic are liable to a fine. In the case of an accident it is assumed that non-use of winter tyres will have constituted a large contributory factor to the cause of the accident, reducing an insurance pay-out even if the other party was at fault.
Where winter tyres are fitted a minimum tread depth of 3mm is required in most countries (the Czech Republic now requires 4mm). For other tyres, while the legal minimum is 1.6mm the AA recommends at least 3mm of tread for winter motoring, and certainly no less than 2mm.
There is currently no legislation in the UK that requires anyone to use winter tyres, and you might think that with all the chaos that ensues when we do get snow, there should be, as the extra grip and traction available really would make a difference. The fact is, despite good advice to fit them over the winter months, most accidents happen in this period.
In Andorra, France, Denmark, and Norway, winter tyres are recommended, but not compulsory, though a lot of the driving population are in the habit of fitting them, often keeping an extra set of wheels to change with the seasons. In these countries it is theoretically possible to just use snow chains, but the problem arises when the conditions are marginal and you could be pulled up and even fined for causing damage to the carriageway or holding up the traffic.
However, if you want to drive in Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland, you are currently required by their law to have winter tyres fitted and these are recognised by various markings on the tyre wall.
So what constitutes a Winter tyre and what markings will it have?
Basically, there are three elements that define a winter tyre; a rubber compound that keeps its flexibility to maintain contact with the road surface in cold weather, a more open tread pattern to give better grip on soft surfaces, and finally “sipes” (named after John Sipe, who first patented them) – small cuts in the tread pattern that increase the number of lateral edges and help to give grip in wet and icy conditions, much in the same way as a yachting deck shoe has many cuts in the sole to give good grip on wet decks.
What are the tirewall markings the authorities will be looking for?
First up is the M+S symbol, which fairly obviously stands for Mud and Snow. Next are the “3 peak/alpine” mountain/snowflake symbol, and possibly the Snowflake in a box, which may also indicate the minimum tread depth for satisfactory performance.
To the best of my knowledge from researching this article, M+S usually only refers to the suitability of the tread pattern, i.e. the amount of open tread to improve grip, but may indicate a modified compound that is more suitable over a wide range of temperatures. M+S appears on what are generally called “all season” or “four season” tyres suitable for light snow, mud and wet surfaces. There is no specific test for an M+S tyre as to its suitability for winter conditions. Manufacturers can produce their own symbol and variations might be: M&S, MS, MUD AND SNOW.
A true, dedicated winter tyre, which is capable of giving a good performance in thick snow, ice and slush will have the mountain/snowflake symbol, as well as the M+S designation. Crucially, it will also have demonstrated adequate performance in a certified snow traction and brake test. The distinction for the mountain/snowflake marked tyre is in the more advanced tread design, but also in the rubber compound and the number of sipes on the tread.
The critical point however for us motorhomers - and this is backed up by the AA and the Caravan Club - is that the M+S symbol is currently acceptable to the relevant authorities in relation to “winter” tyres. This ruling allows “all season” tyres to be used as a “winter’ tyre, and thus saves us the expense and inconvenience of having to change tyres and/or wheels at the change of seasons.
Are there any insurance implications of fitting winter tyres?
There can obviously be some issues of assumed negligence and serious implications if you have an accident in a foreign country (as in this country) and are deemed to have been using inappropriate tyres. Hence you are at risk of loss of cover and potential criminal prosecution or civil litigation if you don’t have winter tyres fitted when in a country that deems them to be mandatory.
Do I have to tell my insurance company?
Motor insurers recognise that some motorists may wish to fit winter tyres to their car during cold weather. Also, whilst no substitute for common sense driving, winter tyres can have a positive impact on improving road safety.
However, if you fit winter or all-season tyres in place of your standard 'summer' tyres there should be no need to tell your insurer – even though the speed index might be lower.
The lower speed index is still likely to exceed all national speed limits by a considerable margin – with the exception of some German autobahns – and is not checked as part of the passenger car MOT test.
Could my insurance company increase my premiums if I fit winter tyres?
I did come across some reports of some insurers increasing premiums if you fitted winter tyres, or remarkably, even refusing cover, but the Association of British Insurers (ABI) statement on the link below pretty well clears this up. I looked at the list of insurers and very few had any quibbles, but it's important to check, as some require that you inform them if winter tyres are fitted even though there is no effect on premiums or cover.