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Most effective tire for wintertime driving in Alaska: studs or studless?

Jill Burke
Aaron Jansen illustration

Like all good love stories, Alaskans’ love affair with their winter tires may have more to do with inexplicable likes and dislikes than brain power. But this is not to say science and good instincts have no role in how drivers choose tire mates for their cars.

Remember that scene in the movie “Grease” where good girl Olivia Newton John and bad boy John Travolta reinvent themselves to impress the other? You know the part, where Danny suddenly dons a letter sweater while Sandy sexes up in sleek, black leather. Their eyes meet, giving way to this exchange:

Danny: “Sandy!”

Sandy: “Tell me about it, stud.”

Like Danny, studded tires have a bad rap, perhaps well earned. Their biggest downfall is their appetite for asphalt. They chew up roads, increasing wear and tear, resulting in sometimes-staggering repair fees. Some countries and states have already outlawed them. An effort to ban them failed to make the ballot earlier this year in Oregon, where some estimates place the studded-tire road damage bill up to $40 million a year. That's about four times the state’s repair budget.

True to form, Alaskans aren’t following suit. They like their studs, even though rival studless tires have made great improvements over the years in an effort to woo customers. In places where studded tires are banned, it’s an easy sell. But in Alaska, where people don’t have to settle for an arranged match, metal-toothed tires maintain their allure.

“Nothing will replace metal on ice,” said Rich Lamar, general manager at Johnson Tire in Anchorage. “Metal on ice is always going to give you better traction.” Lamar has been in the tire business for nearly four decades, spending the last 27 years here in Alaska. His customers have historically chosen studded tires, and continue to do so, he said. “To us, it’s a no brainer. You get more traction and they last longer.”

The alternatives are an all-season tire, or a studless winter model that features a specialized, absorbent rubber and cuts, or siping, in the tread. The concept is that the studless winter versions mop up water and moisture like a sponge, allowing the grooves in the tread to “bite” the road surface. Asked how those models perform at colder temperatures, Lamar said to imagine walking around with sponges strapped to the bottom of your feet, then asked:

“What kind of performance would you expect?”

For Lamar, studs reign supreme for the same reason ice climbers wear crampons and winter pedestrians put ice cleats on their shoes -- they work. 

The passenger fleets for the city of Anchorage and state of Alaska are also for the most part outfitted with studded tires during winter. Some of this is a function of performance. The Anchorage Police Department, for instance, said other models aren’t rated for high speeds, a problem if you’re in the business of chasing bad guys.

“We like them for the ice, they are much better on icy conditions,” said Alan Czajkowski, director of Anchorage’s Public Works Department. Winter was so fierce last year, the deadline for removing studs was extended until May 1. “And a lot of it is (also) dollars and cents."

The city has found that Bridgestone’s Blizzak tires cost 60 percent more than studded models and don’t last any longer. “If we are not seeing better traction or a safer tire then it doesn’t make sense to spend 60 percent more,” he said. It would cost Anchorage $123 per tire to outfit its police cars with Blizzaks, while studded tires run about $74 per tire, according to data provided by the city.

Science gets a say

About eight years ago, researchers in Alaska and Washington state put various tire models to the test. What they found makes Alaska’s love affair with studs look more like loyalty than a preference grounded in performance.

The study pitted studded, all-season, and winter studless tires against one another in three conditions: packed snow, ice and wet pavement.

All-season tires performed competently overall, but didn’t do well on icy roads. On snow, the studded and studless winter models performed equally, although the studless models did better when cornering. Studless models were more expensive and wore faster than regular models, but maintained their effectiveness longer than studs.

On icy roads at temperatures close to freezing, studded tires ranked best, but had the longest list of downsides, too. They wear quickly on bare pavement, don’t perform any better on snow-packed roads, and cause road ruts and dust.

The report’s conclusion was stark:

The precise environmental conditions under which studded tires provide a traction benefit are rare. On smooth ice near the freezing mark they are great. As the temperature drops, so does the effectiveness of studded tires. Studless tires seem to offer an excellent alternative. Good on ice, great on snow, but definitely more expensive.

If Alaska ever decides to nix the studded tire, like other states, it should expect a fight. Visual studies by the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) have shown that 70 percent of winter drivers in Anchorage and Juneau use studded tires.

Perhaps in recognition that studs are here to stay, the state has begun using a rubberized asphalt mix on its roads designed to combat the wear and tear associated with studded tires, according to Rick Feller, a planner with the state Transportation Department.

Studs cause damage to roads. But so do non-studded tires. It’s difficult to pinpoint how much damage is caused by studs alone, Feller said.

“It’s really hard to put us on the same plane as maybe other states that are dealing with much shorter and less-severe periods of winter,” he said. The new asphalt is already in place as part of the recent rut-repair and repaving project between Anchorage and the Parks Highway.

In the end, tire buyers will drive the trends. And whether they choose with their hearts or their minds, by whim or by data, they may have only themselves to blame for how well it works out.

“The truth of the matter is that tire design (has) evolved to the point where studless tires are equal to or better than studs,” said James Harper, a communication specialist with the Alaska University Transportation Center in Fairbanks, where researchers work closely with the state DOT. “The real takeaways from our research have less to do with tire performance and more to do with the driver.

"If you’re about to lock up your brakes on a slick road to avoid hitting something, reduce your speed to gain control.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com. Story first appeared in Dispatch during November 2011.