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How to get your car ready for winter and avoid road emergencies

Nov. 4, 2022
6 mins
Senior couple in car dressed in fashionable, modern winter gear

This article has been updated from a previous version.

Canadians take pride in their ability to withstand wintry conditions, yet snowy and icy roads are responsible for 30% of annual collisions according to the latest data available from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

A third of collisions happen between November and February, so it’s important to take steps to winterize your vehicle, prepare for an emergency, and adjust your driving habits before the official start of the season.

Are winter tires mandatory in Ontario?

No jurisdiction in Canada, except for Quebec and certain areas of British Columbia, mandate winter tires. Quebec’s law was passed in 2008 and requires four winter tires on vehicles from December 1 to March 15. Quebec’s drivers can be fined up to $300 for driving without them.

Although snow tires are not mandatory in Ontario, insurance providers in the province are required by law to provide discounts (of up to 5%) on car insurance premiums for drivers who install them. There are other benefits to having winter tires on your vehicle for the following reasons:

  • Winter tires are designed differently than all-weather tires. They’re formulated for colder weather that can cause fairer weather tires to harden and lose traction. Also, the treads are deeper and designed to reduce the buildup of snow.
  • The improved traction decreases stopping distance and increases control, lowering your chance of an accident. However, even with winter tires, collision coverage can help protect you financially in the event of a claim.
  • By using winter tires for a portion of the year, you extend the life of your all-season tires.
  • There is a downside aside from the cost: you need somewhere to store your winter tires in the off-season (and your all-season tires in the winter.) Out in the open, even under a tarp, won’t do. Continental Tires recommends you clean and bag your winter tires, and remove as much air from the bag as possible. Store them in a cool, ventilated area.
  • If you don’t have a basement, garage, or other storage area, some shops or dealerships might let you store your tires with them if they have the space for a fee.

How cold should it be before switching to winter tires?

You should have winter tires on your vehicle when the temperature dips below 7 degrees Celsius, according to the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC).

If you install winter tires too early and expose them to higher temperatures, they can wear down much quicker, increasing the likelihood of a blowout. Your risk of hydroplaning could also increase as winter tire traction is not meant for warm, wet weather conditions.

According to a recent TRAC survey, the majority (seven-in-ten) of drivers outside of Quebec use winter tires, with 79% of Canadian drivers claiming winter tires have helped them avoid a vehicle collision. Most drivers in Ontario use winter tires (73%), with Alberta following close behind (68%). However, Atlantic Canada accounts for the highest percentage of winter tire users (92%).

Prepare a winter emergency survival kit

Despite your best efforts, accidents happen. That’s all the more reason to be prepared with an emergency survival kit. You can print off a checklist from the federal government to make sure you don’t forget anything. The kit should include:

  • A first-aid kit. Ensure it has bandages, gauze pads, medical tape, and other items, as well as anything specific for a medical condition you have (for example, an extra inhaler if you have asthma).
  • A phone charger. Phone batteries drain quickly. Always have an external battery and charging cord available in the car in case you can’t use your car charger.
  • Non-perishable food and water. Energy bars, water, canned food, and a can opener will sustain you if you are stuck in a snowstorm.
  • Blankets, extra clothes, and gloves. Keep thermal blankets, dry socks, gloves, and a change of clothes handy.
  • A folding shovel and cat litter or sand. Shovels can help you dig your way out of a snowbank, while litter or sand can give you traction if your tires are spinning.
  • A flashlight. Whether it winds up or uses batteries, always have one on-hand as well as extra batteries, waterproof matches, emergency candles, and a deep can to place them in while lit.
  • Road flares and a reflective safety vest. These can help other motorists spot you if you have to pull over for any reason. Place the flares far enough away from the car so that other vehicles can safely stop.
  • Heat packets. These heat up automatically without any power source and can keep your hands and feet warm.
  • Windshield washer fluid and antifreeze. Make sure you have extra jugs of winter washer fluid and antifreeze in your vehicle just in case you need either.
  • Other essentials. A Swiss Army knife or multi-purpose tool, jump starter and cables, tow chain or rope, ice scraper and brush, whistle, paper towels, screwdriver, duct tape, fire extinguisher, spare tire, and a wheel wrench and jack.

Winter driving safety refresher

Wintertime driving in Ontario can, at times, be hazardous. Adhering to recommended safe driving tips can help you minimize that risk.

In general, because of the unpredictability of Canada’s winter weather, there are other steps required to ensure your safety on the roads regardless of where you drive, including:

  • Clear the snow off your vehicle. Staying safe means being able to see all around your car, so be sure to clear all the snow and ice from your vehicle and windows. You can be fined for not fully clearing snow and ice off your vehicle including the roof, hood, lights, and signals. In Ontario, for example, you can get a fine of $110 for failing to clear snow and ice off a vehicle’s windows.
  • Have a plan. Store on your mobile phone the numbers of emergency contacts and organizations. For example, suppose you have a Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) membership. Having that number on hand is crucial during a breakdown. But remember if you require assistance because of the weather conditions, many other CAA members will be calling for help too.
  • Winterize your vehicle. Clear the inside of your car of all those coffee cups and burger wrappers. Get a tune-up. Make sure all the fluids are refreshed. Lubricate the locks. Check the battery. Make sure your windshield wipers are up to the task and don’t streak — new ones are a minimal investment with a great payoff.
  • Many auto shops offer winterization packages. Call around to make sure you’re getting a reasonable price, and ask what services are included. Just like any other service, referrals for auto mechanics from people you trust are golden.
  • Drive according to road conditions. Double the two-second rule, and don’t follow other cars closely. Keep your gas tank topped up and don’t let it fall below half-tank.

Winter weather in Canada is legendary around the world. Since we spend almost half our year in it, we’d best be prepared. No matter where you live in Canada, snow tires are a wise investment that could prevent a collision and save your life — as well as money on your car insurance.

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Dave Webb

Dave Webb is a writer and editor of 30 years’ experience. He has written about municipal politics, conservation issues, information technology, medical technology, music, and the manmade diamond industry along with insurance. And some sports. He is also an avid semi-professional roots musician. He lives in Toronto.

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