Should studded tires be banned to save Washington’s roads?

Steve Sakach, owner of Steve’s Tire & Auto Repair in Kennewick, dismounts studded winter tires from the rims of a car that was dropped off by a customer.
Steve Sakach, owner of Steve’s Tire & Auto Repair in Kennewick, dismounts studded winter tires from the rims of a car that was dropped off by a customer. Tri-City Herald

Consider the studded tire.

In these wintry climes, the presence of metal rivets where the rubber meets the road causes heartburn for many road builders. The Washington State Department of Transportation estimates that studded tires cause up to $29 million in damage to state-owned roadways every year, primarily in the form of ruts.

That’s why state lawmakers limited the use of studded tires between Nov. 1 and March 31 and instituted a $5 fee on each one sold. A number of states have banned studded tires, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Michigan and Alaska, two northern, frozen locales, allow only the use of rubber studs.

Japan, another country that sees its fair share of snow, criminalized the use of studded tires on dry pavement and developed the studless winter tire, an innovation of Bridgestone, a Japanese company and the world’s largest manufacturer of tires.

Gary Kaesemeyer, Spokane’s streets director, said the city doesn’t have a position on the issue. Personally, though, he thinks people should try those tires from Japan, which are made from a rubber compound that works better in temperatures below 45 degrees and remains flexible enough to conform to and grip the road.

“The studded tires do damage the roads. We’re encouraging people to try the newest, more modern style of snow tires,” he said. “That’s my personal take on it.”

Without a doubt, studded tires are bad for roads. And in a town where the quality of our roads tops the list of municipal voters’ concerns, you’d think that’d be the end of discussion. Ban the studs, save our roads.

Not so fast.

“Where the studs save you is they help you stop,” said Mel Fries, manager of Preedy’s Tire and Automotive just east of downtown Spokane. “Studs are substantially better on ice and wet ice. They definitely give you superior traction.”

According to snow traction and ice braking tests done by Consumer Reports, “studded models do indeed grip well on ice, but they do not always out-perform studless models, which have more advanced winter tread compounds that stay pliable in the cold.”

Other studies have shown that while studs are the best option for clear ice in temperatures hovering around zero, they reduce a vehicle’s ability to stop on roadways that are simply wet.

Regardless, Fries, an expert on tires if there ever was one, is as sure of stud superiority as he is winter will come, but he noted there was a bit more to it. People with private driveways on the South Hill may want studded tires. Motorists in Spokane Valley probably don’t, since they live in a valley and valleys are, by definition, flat.

It’s about individual driving needs, Fries said, noting that about 25 percent of his customers use studs. In short, the situation’s complicated, something the road builders of the world fail to comprehend, Fries said.

“I know the road department doesn’t like studs. They always calculate the cost of the road damage, but what they don’t calculate is the cost of accidents,” he said. “How much carnage is caused by people who don’t use studs?”

Not much, says Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Sevigney.

“I don’t dispute that they may provide additional traction in the wintertime in certain situations. But typically tires aren’t the cause of accidents in the winter. It’s people going too fast,” he said. “Troopers don’t run studded tires and we don’t have any problems.”