It has become necessary to discuss snow tires again. We began this discussion two weeks ago after a news story said Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, William T. S. Bricker, had scheduled a snow tire hearing for Dec. 22.
Maryland law authorizes Bricker to decide which tires will be accepted as snow tires. However, no DMV administrator in the state's history had ever exercised that authority.
So there was interest in Bricker's hearing. Also some apprehension.People who sell snow tires with deep treads wondered whether Bricker would accept all radial tires as snow tires, thereby saving money for motorists but reducing profits for those who sell traditional snow tires. And that's just what Bricker did on Monday. He announced that all radial tires will now qualify as snow tires in Maryland.
For us, attention turns to Robert O. D. Thompson, who is deputy director of the D. C. Department of Transportation. What will Thompson do?
Thompson has been in close touch with Bricker and with ither traffic and motor vehicle officials in this region for a long time because Thompson is convinced that there is need for cooperation among traffic regulators in neighboring jurisdictions.
In this part of the country, distances are not as vast as they are out West. In a four-hour drive betwen Alexandria and New York, a motorist moves from Virginia to Maryland to Delaware to New Jersey to New York in rapid order. For good measure, the driver passes through many cities and counties. He can't stop to change his tires each time he crosses a jurisdictional line, nor can the commuter who works in Washington but lives in Baltimore, Fredericksburg, Annapolis or Martinsburg, W. Va.
So Thompson told me on Monday night that he plans to recommend that the District of Columbia join Maryland in accepting all radial tires as snow tires. He said, "Up in the Maryland mountains, where heavy snows are not unusual and even the main roads can't always be cleared quickly, prudent motorists will probably recognize the need for traditional, deep-treaded snow tires, even if the law diesn't demand them. But in the metropolitan Washington area, the snow is seldom that heavy, and main streets are usually cleared quickly. So I think radial tires will serve the purpose quite well for our people."
Just in case you're wondering: There is no universally accepted standard for snow tire performance. Neither the industry nor the government has formulated one.
I am told that tire makers, auto engineers and government officials are moving toward that goal, but are still at least a year away from it.
This leaves each region, state, county and city wondering what degree of regulation is needed for a mobile population like ours. Most states do what Virginia does: They leave it up to their counties and cities to determine snow tire regulations.
The tire industry's view of what a snow tire should be differs quite understandably from the General Motors opinion that its TPC radials are adequate for use in most metropolitan areas. Individual auto owners are torn in both directions. They want safety and reasonable assurance that they won't get stuck in the snow, but they do not want the expense of buying special snow tires -- or the bother of changing tires twice a year.
GM has not promoted its TPC tires as snow tires, nor has it claimed they are "just as good as snow tires." What GM did do was a lot of reseach that led to a tread design that "provides better traction on wet and snowy roads than bias-belted tires." (Similar research led individual tire manufacturers to develop what are now known generically as all-weather tires.)
GM, which makes no tires, took its new radial design to tire manufacturers and asked, "Would you like to make tires for us according to these specifications?" Several companies said yes, and now supply GM with its TPC radials.
Some tire makers think motorists need traditional deep-treaded snow tires, and in some cases they are right. It depends on where a person does his driving, and under what kinds if road conditions. A tire that is superior in heavy snow is not necessarily the best in rain or sleet or sluch.
So it appears to me that Maryland's Bill Bricker and D.C.'s Bob Thompson are on the right track when they say we need universally recognized standards for snow tire performance and a regional approach to regulation.