Should You Choose Chains or Winter Tires?

December 10th, 2021 by

A silver 2021 Nissan Murano is shown driving on a road with snowy surroundings.

As a dealership with a service department that houses one of the best tire centers in Joliet, we have a lot of people ask us about snow tires and chains. Fortunately, the answer is pretty simple: the vast majority of the time, all you need for even the roughest winter is a great set of winter tires (sometimes also called snow tires) that are in good condition. As your winter tire dealer, we are passionate about ensuring all of our customers and neighbors throughout the Chicago area have the right tires to stay safe on the road.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that there are never good times to have chains for driving in the winter, but it’s not a major concern for most of us in Joliet, Chicago, and similar parts of Illinois. Let’s take a look at what winter tires really are, what they do for you and your vehicle, and when you should have them on your car. We’ll also consider the benefits of chains for your tires and explore why you probably have no need for them – as well as when they can be helpful. By the end of this, you’ll be a winter tire expert and ready for even the roughest weather the winter months can throw at you.

What are Winter Tires?

Most of the time, when you see the terms “winter tires” and “snow tires,” they are pretty much interchangeable. Winter tires are designed specifically for use in cold weather, and they’re perfect for use on snow, slush, and ice. But what really sets them apart from other tires, even all-season tires, is that the rubber used in their manufacture is designed for low temperatures.

The most important thing about tires, when it comes to the kind of traction and control they provide you, is how flexible they are. Tires are made of rubber, and that rubber needs to be soft and pliable to offer you the best grip possible on the road. Standard tires are great in warm weather; as the weather gets cold, however, the rubber becomes hard, and they no longer give you the kind of grip you expect. Winter tires use rubber formulated to remain soft even in the coldest temperatures, so you maintain the kind of traction you want.

There are some types of winter tires specifically called snow tires – they can also be called “studded winter tires” – that are designed for use in heavy snow and ice. These include cleats or studs in them that help grip ice and improve your traction on the road. For the most part, these kinds of heavy snow tires are mostly used in regions that get ridiculous amounts of snow and ice. Here in the Chicago area, you typically just need good winter tires that are in great shape.

A white 2021 Nissan Altima is shown from a rear angle driving on a snowy road.

When Should You Have Winter Tires?

You’ll find a lot of different suggestions out there on when you should get winter tires put onto your vehicle. If you’re just looking for a great rule and reminder, then make sure you have them on your vehicle by mid-November (before Thanksgiving) and leave them on your car until mid-April (around Tax Day). That’s a great way to make sure you’re properly equipped, but we suggest a better understanding of why these dates are recommended.

As we mentioned already, the purpose of winter tires is to maintain great traction when it’s cold – not just in snow and ice, but at low temperatures. The “magic number” here is right around 45 degrees; as soon as temperatures are steadily at or below 45 degrees, you want to have winter tires on your vehicle. Once the temperature has gone back up, then you’re good to switch back to your preferred all-season or summer tires to enjoy the best performance in warmer weather.

Here in Joliet, in general, we typically dip down to average temperatures around 40 degrees once we get into November, and we stay there until early April. That’s why we suggest the pre-Thanksgiving and Tax Day as good, general rules. But if you’re keeping an eye on daily temperatures, then you can see when we’re getting near that breakpoint, and you need to change the tires on your vehicle. This will let you get the most from your winter tires – swapping them out can let you use the same set of winter tires for several years.

What are Tire Chains?

You’ve probably heard of tire chains or snow chains – a lot of people talk about how important they are for extreme weather. These are “chains” (sometimes they are literally chains, other times they are cables or cords, it depends on design) that wrap around the tires on your vehicle. They are designed to help dig into ice and provide you with improved traction in very deep snow and layers of ice on the road.

Snow chains work very well for what they’re designed for – in areas that experience extreme winter weather, they are actually required by law to drive during certain months. The reality, however, is that you really don’t need them if you primarily drive around Joliet, Chicago, and similar urban areas. Our cities are excellent about clearing snow from the road, laying down salt, and otherwise doing everything possible to keep streets clean. Even if you need to drive after a snowstorm, you’ll probably be fine with your winter tires – though chains might be useful after a particularly harsh ice storm.

That being said, if you plan on heading out of town and driving in rural areas, especially if you’re heading up to the mountains somewhere, then having tire chains can be a great idea. Just remember there are some major limitations on how you use them:

  • Most chains have a speed limit of about 20-30 mph
  • Their traction on dry roads is awful and can be dangerous
  • They can damage roads, especially roads without ice or snow
  • If not properly secured, they can damage your vehicle
  • Some cars are not compatible with snow chains
  • Accelerating rapidly can damage the chains or your tires

It should also be noted that tire chains are illegal or only allowed under certain conditions in some states. If you plan on driving across the country and going through numerous states, then it’s a good idea to check ahead and see where you’re allowed to use them. This probably has you wondering…

A man is shown adjusting tire chains after visiting a winter tire dealer.

Can You Use Tire Chains in Illinois?

Yes, according to Illinois Compiled Statutes 625 ILCS 5/12-401:

“Nothing in this Section shall be deemed to prohibit the use of tire chains of reasonable proportion upon any vehicle when required for safety because of snow, ice or other conditions tending to cause a vehicle to skid.”

In other words, state law here in Illinois allows for the use of tire chains when it’s required due to road conditions. It should be noted, however, that this leaves a lot open to interpretation; you could potentially be fined if you use chains on dry roads or where they’re not “required.” There might also be local and city ordinances against the use of chains in some areas; keep that in mind and always know local laws for safe driving. Most of the states around us have similar laws, but always use discretion and avoid damaging roads if you need to use chains.

It’s All About Control

At the end of the day, when you’re figuring out what you need, it all comes down to properly maintaining control of your vehicle. In general, especially when driving around town, good winter tires are all you need – just be sure they’re still in great shape, with deep tread and no damage. Remember to slow down since it will take you longer to stop in snow, slush, and ice, and give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going. As long as you’re cautious and drive safely, your winter tires will keep you in control and give you the traction you need.

Posted in Winter Tire Dealer