Are studless winter tires better than their studded rivals?
It’s a crucial question each year for many Alaskans, but especially this week in Anchorage, after the season’s first major snowfall hit the city with forecasts of more to come.
Many Alaskans say they believe studded tires are the best choice for risky roads and driving conditions.
But Alaskans in major cities seem to prefer studless winter tires, like Blizzaks, though by one account Anchorage residents were closely divided on the topic, according to surveys led by Osama Abaza, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
His research, conducted for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and published in 2019, found advantages to both types of tires depending on the road conditions.
“It’s really hard to give simple words to the community on what they should do,” Abaza said. “The issue is way more complicated than simply this or that. There are a lot of issues to consider, among which is our awareness and how we drive when we have these critical conditions.”
He leans toward the non-studded winter tire as the best choice, following his close look at both types of tires.
The popular Blizzaks by Bridgestone perform better on slushy, wet or snowy roads, while studded tires perform better on slippery glare ice, the study said, citing previous research.
Non-studded tires also have other broad advantages, the study found. They don’t cause the deep highway ruts that can create year-round driving hazards, and they reduce costly road maintenance.
But Jacob Romero, an owner of the Drivers’ Educational School in Midtown Anchorage, said studded tires are the way to go when you’re teaching young people how to drive.
The school uses only studded tires in winter, Romero said Monday. The students get about 200 miles of road experience in their training.
He had just brushed snow off a Ford Bronco Sport that was about to get new studded tires installed at a car dealership.
Students are inexperienced and can misjudge the proper stopping distance, especially when it’s icy, he said. The studded tires provide an extra margin of safety compared to studless winter tires because, in his view, they generally come to a quicker stop, he said.
Studded tires are also reassuring when students drive him down the steep, hairpin turn on Toilsome Hill Drive, beneath Flattop Mountain on the Hillside, he said.
“Professionally, studded tires are the way to go,” he said. “You can get better traction with studs.”
But Romero and his wife use Blizzaks at home, he said. They’re experienced drivers who know when to slow down when it’s slick. And the tires don’t need to be changed with the seasons, saving time and money, he said. (Bridgestone, the maker of Blizzaks, recommends that snow tires not be driven year-round.)
His father, Jose Romero, also an owner of the driver school, said cautious driving and new tires are best, no matter the tire choice.
“In wintertime, it’s go slower and have good tires, whichever you choose, studs or Blizzaks,” Jose Romero said.
Dave Waldo, a retired research project manager who focused on improving the state’s transportation infrastructure for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said he’s surprised Alaska hasn’t outlawed studded tires as some states have, in part to reduce road damage and maintenance costs.
“At one point there weren’t a lot of options for studless tires, but their price has come down, and they are really similar to studded tires,” he said.
Studded tires are great until the studs quickly grind down, he said.
“People say, ‘Well, my studs are better,’ " said Waldo. “Yeah, they’re better for a month or two. But will you get new studded tires every year?”
“A Blizzak or something similar, I think they outperform in the long run,” he said.
The study led by Abaza found that studded tires have an advantage in limited situations.
“The traction of studded tires is slightly superior to studless tires only under an ever-narrowing set of circumstances: clear ice near the freezing point, a condition with limited occurrence,” the study reported, citing previous research. “For the majority of test results reviewed for snow, and for ice at lower temperatures, studded tires performed as well as or worse than Blizzaks.”
“If you’re living in an area where the slopes are high, like on the Hillside, in an area that is really steep, studded tires can have a little bit of an edge,” Abaza said. “But this is a minor case compared to all the driving people do out there.”
There’s also the economic cost of studded tires to the state.
“The annual damage cost associated with studded tires statewide was found to be $13.7 million — 42 times the state’s fees from studded tire sales and stud installations not considering the cost of crashes and other safety aspects caused by ruts,” the study says.
A 2018 survey of households in major cities across Alaska found that 52% of the respondents in Anchorage said they used studded tires, the study reported. Studded tire use was 43% in the Palmer/Wasilla area and 31% in Fairbanks.
A survey of about 1,200 vehicles in Anchorage parking lots found studded tire use at 35%, Abaza said.
The study proposed recommendations for policy changes, including phasing out studded tires over time, better enforcing illegal use of studded tires in summer that causes severe rutting, and more education about the safety benefits of non-studded tires.
Mickey Meyer, an owner of Muffler City & Brake in downtown Anchorage, said the auto shop sells a variety of studded and studless tires.
She said the shop’s customers generally prefer studded tires, considering them safer.
“People who do a lot of traveling or if they live in a hilly area, they kind of like the studded tire a little bit better,” said Meyer.
She said Blizzaks and similar winter tires have devotees. “If they drive more in the city, some of them like the studless tire,” she said.
Nearby, mechanics mounted tires in the falling snow with handheld impact wrenches and jacks. After several inches of snow dropped on Sunday, business exploded from steady to “crazy” at Muffler City, Meyer said. Seven indoor bays were also full of cars getting tires changed, she said.
Meyer said she’s experienced the benefits of studded tires on the windy, icy Hillside. In her view, studded tires usually have extra stopping power, and she’s sticking with them.
“I feel safer with them,” she said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to say Blizzak manufacturer Bridgestone recommends that snow tires not be driven year-round.