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Driving in the EU - are your tyres ready for winter?

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 17 December 2015
  2. Cars and Motoring
  3. 0 comments
Snow chains

Driving during the winter can be a treacherous business, with snow and ice out to wreck your car and your Christmas, not to mention your no-claims bonus.

Some countries across Europe have special regulations for driving through wintery conditions, so if you are driving on the continent this winter, you could find yourself in hot water with the law if your car isn’t up to scratch.

Here’s what you need to know.

How are the rules different in the EU?

Rules are different across different countries – depending on where you go, you may need to add winter tyres or snow chains to your car.

You may find that these are useful in the UK too, particularly if you drive a lot and live in a particularly cold or icy area. However, you won’t be legally required to have them unless you go abroad.

Different countries also vary as to when these things are required – for example, in some places, you must have snow tyres equipped at all times between certain dates.

Winter tyres

As the name suggests, winter tyres are specially designed for driving in snowy or icy conditions. They are designed to retain their flexibility at low temperatures and maintain better grip on the road when conditions are slippery.

Winter tyres are not suited for summer weather, so if your car is fitted with summer tyres, as most UK cars are, you will need to switch them.

Alternatively, you could opt for all-season tyres – these jack-of-all-trades types are not quite as effective on icy roads as dedicated winter tyres, but they should satisfy winter tyre requirements, while sparing you the hassle of switching tyres twice a year.

Requirements for winter tyres vary across the continent, with many countries making it compulsory to use them under certain conditions. Most of the time, they will be required at certain times of the year, sometime around November to April. For example, Romania and the Czech Republic require you to have winter tyres from the 1st of November to the 31st March.

Other countries, such as Germany, don’t have a fixed period but do require cars to have winter tyres in wintry conditions.

Here are a few other exceptions to the normal winter tyre periods:

  • Austria – mandatory outside 1st Nov-15th Apr period if weather is sufficiently bad;
  • Czech Republic – mandatory if temperature is below 4 degrees C;
  • Italy – usually mandatory from 15th Oct-15th Apr, but different provinces can adjust these periods.

It’s worth noting that winter tyres aren’t permitted everywhere – they are prohibited from use in Portugal, and can only be used in Belgium from the 1st October to 30th April.

Spiked tyres

In some countries, you can also use spiked or studded tyres – these can be ideal in extremely icy conditions.

However, they are unsuitable when there is no ice on the road, and some countries will not allow you to use them. Most countries that do, such as Iceland and Norway, will only allow them during the winter months.

Snow chains

These are chains that are fitted over your car’s wheels to give it greater grip on snowy roads. Snow chains should only be used when there is a compacted layer of snow on the road – using them on the tarmac can damage both the road and your car.

While you obviously shouldn’t use them all the time, some countries will require you to at least have a set with you.

For example, anyone driving in Bulgaria from the 1st of November to the 1st of March must carry snow chains with them, even if they end up not needing them.

Other places don’t have set periods for carrying them, but will still expect you to use them when needed. If you are driving in Switzerland, you must attach snow chains when signs indicate.

Some countries allow snow chains, but set a reduced speed limit when using them – in France and Italy, you cannot drive faster than 50 km/h (31 mph) with snow chains attached.

For more guidance on using and fitting snow chains, read this guidance from the AA.

Lower speed limits

While it is obviously safer to limit your speed when the weather gets more treacherous, most speed limits on the continent stay the same during the winter.

However, one exception is in Finland, where reduced speed limits are enforced from October to March. Speed limits will generally be reduced to around 20km/h less than the normal limits.

Other winter equipment

As well as making sure your car is suitable for the snow, you may need to have extra equipment with you. Drivers in Croatia must have a shovel with them during winter months.

Similarly, if you are driving in Sweden, you will need to have antifreeze and a shovel with you.

It won’t necessarily be compulsory, but you should also take some kind of hi-vis jacket with you, in case you find yourself attaching snow chains to your wheels on a dark icy road in the middle of nowhere.

What to do if you’re going abroad

This post should have given you some insight into the different sort of rules across the continent, but if you are going to a particular country this winter, you should make sure you are prepared before you travel.

The AA’s website has some excellent guidance for UK drivers preparing to drive abroad, with information on each country’s rules.

If you are planning to drive in a country which will require different tyres or snow chains, you should consider hiring a car, if possible.

A rental car native to the country will be compliant with the local laws, and this will save you needing to make adjustments to your car.

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