What others say: Winter tire debate heats up

  • By Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial
  • Tuesday, February 28, 2017 4:26pm
  • Opinion

If you want to start an argument among Alaskans, a good topic is winter driving. As with many road-based frustrations, most people have strong opinions about best practices for driving during an Alaska winter, and just about everyone is convinced their answer is the right one. Close to the heart of this unceasing debate is the battle between those who prefer studs and those who prefer nonstudded winter tires.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, waded into the debate recently when she unveiled a bill that would substantially increase the state fee for purchase of studded tires. Even without the added baggage of thousands of Alaskans’ fervent beliefs about winter driving, it’s a complex issue.

The benefits of studs for winter driving in Alaska are obvious. Dozens of tiny metal spikes poking out of the rubber of the tire tread help vehicles retain traction on icy roads, a particular help during slippery conditions at near-freezing temperatures. But they also have a cost in terms of their impacts on the state’s roads. Studs wear down pavement much faster than nonstudded tires, creating ruts and potholes.

In response to the increased wear studs create, Sen. Giessel introduced Senate Bill 50, which would raise the fee per tire on the purchase of studs by a factor of 10. Right now, there’s a $5 fee per tire associated with the purchase of studs; under the bill, that would rise to $50, or $200 for a set of four.

When it was introduced, Sen. Giessel’s bill would have increased the fee even further, to $75 per tire, but the senator changed the amount to $50 after a raft of negative outcry from pro-stud Alaskans.

An increased fee for the use of studs does make intuitive sense, given the increased wear they cause for roads. And there are high-performing nonstudded tires, such as Blizzaks and other high-traction winter models, that are held up by their devotees as doing as well as or better than studs under a variety of winter conditions. Advances in tire technology haven’t made studs obsolete, but they have at least provided serviceable alternatives.

But the proposed law could very well have unintended negative consequences. Although solid nonstudded alternatives to studs exist, there’s no way to mandate that Alaskans use those instead of less suitable summer tires, which some people — especially those ill able to afford Blizzaks or studs with a $200 surcharge attached — would surely do. The poor traction of those tires would result in poorer ability to stop, causing more accidents. It might help recoup road wear costs associated with studs, but at a cost of driver safety.

Sen. Giessel’s notion that the users responsible for a greater proportion of a state-funded expense (in this case, road resurfacing) should be on the hook for a greater fraction of that expense has merit. But fee increases of the magnitude contemplated will have a serious impact on Alaska drivers and their habits, and those secondary effects shouldn’t be discounted as legislators debate the bill.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Feb. 23