Farewell to studded tires?

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board October 17, 2011 05:05 pm

Get ready, Baker County drivers.

They’re coming for our studded tires.

And this time the “they” isn’t Oregon’s legislators, who have failed to banish studded tires from the state’s roads despite concerns dating to the early 1970s about the damage the tires cause to pavement.

This time it’s our fellow voters.

And we in the thinly populated lands east of the Cascades know too well why that’s significant.

If a large majority of voters in generally snow-free Multnomah County decide to get rid of studded tires, well, there’s nothing Baker County can do to counter them.

The truth is in the numbers.

Multnomah County has 410,000 registered voters.

Baker County has 10,000.

And even if you toss in several other eastside counties with comparatively frigid climates — Wallowa, Union, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Lake, Klamath — you only come up with 88,200 voters.

Statistics aside, though, the central question is whether the case against studded tires is a compelling one.

Are studded tires, as their critics contend, voracious destroyers of asphalt? Are studless snow tires such as Bridgestone Blizzaks equally adept on slippery roads?

It seems to us that those two claims are generally accepted as accurate.

But we’ve been poring over several lengthy studies on both topics. We concluded that the role that studded tires play in turning Oregon highways into rutted ruins is not as obvious as is widely believed, and the difference in performance between studded tires and the studless alternatives is not as narrow.

In the matter of highway damage, there is no dispute that studded tires wear pavement, whether asphalt or concrete, faster than conventional tires do.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of it this way: Which is more likely to leave a visible scratch on your kitchen table — a pencil eraser or a screwdriver?

But the situation gets complicated when you try to extrapolate, from the demonstrable effect that studded tires have, the dollar value of the damage they cause on thousands of miles of road.

The method, as explained in a 2000 report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, in no resembles what a body shop does when you bring in your car with a crunched fender.

Rather, ODOT uses a variety of theoretical models to gauge the highway repair costs for which studded tires are blamed.

These models resulted in nine cost estimates for the damage in 1995, with a difference of $14.6 million from the lowest ($3.7 million) to the highest (18.3 million).

A key point often left out of media coverage is that ODOT also predicts that the switch to lightweight studs, which have been required in Oregon for more than a dozen years, will reduce rutting by 30 percent to 50 percent.

The bottom line is that although studded tires add to Oregon’s highway repair bill, the amount, even under the worst-case estimate, is a paltry sum considering ODOT’s annual budget of about $3.2 billion.

Research on the effectiveness of studded tires is less murky, being based on actual tests in real-world conditions.

In general, these tests show that the biggest benefit of studded tires is that they allow drivers to stop faster on ice-covered roads.

In a test done in Alaska in 1994, the advantage of studded tires over studless snow tires, with vehicles going from 25 mph to a stop, ranged from 5.5 feet to 20 feet depending on the type of car.

Twenty feet, even in a low-speed crash, can literally be a life-saving distance.

In other conditions, including snow, wet or dry pavement, studded tires either perform almost identically to studless and all-season tires, or studded tires have longer stopping distances.

Even in chilly Eastern Oregon, roads are dry, wet or snowy much more often than they are glazed in ice. And since studded tires either perform similarly, or worse, than other tires in such conditions, we understand the argument that, well, why do we need studded tires?

To voters who might be persuaded by this we offer a rebuttal: Their faults aside, studded tires have proved that they can save lives. Are you certain you want to deny other Oregonians the privilege of giving themselves, and their families, that protection?