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Tire tracks in snowWhen snow hits Dixie, people up North tend to get a little mean.

The comments section of any website is never the place to look for sympathy, but the remarks beneath endlessly reposted photos of long stretches of abandoned vehicles and videos of cars spinning helplessly during recent storms seem almost gleeful.

  • "Watch half-inch of snow paralyze Atlanta."
  • "When lack of common sense meets lack of preparation."
  • "No wonder they lost the Civil War."


Even these wisecrackers will agree there is nothing funny about a storm responsible for dozens of traffic deaths and widespread power outages that triggered states of emergency across the South.

The insurance bills resulting from the avalanche of claims won't be a riot, either. (See "How slick roads raise your insurance rates.")

But in Northerners' defense, hundreds of thousands of motorists were, after all, stranded by what appeared to be little more than a few inches of snow. Why?

Warm-weather tires, snow-covered roads don't mix

Matt Lowrance, a tire technician in Charlotte, N.C., says his shop always has on stock one or two severe service tires, a type well-equipped for snow, and sells "a decent amount."

But such customers represent a small minority of drivers. Continental Tire, one of the country's largest producer of snow tires, doesn't even market winter tires in the south.

"In the winter states, we advocate that drivers swap out their tires," says Sheri Herrmann, a communications coordinator with Continental, in South Carolina. "We don't sell a lot of snow tires in the South because they just don't perform well in dry conditions. They're OK. They're just not optimal."

If you've ever tried to walk up a muddy or snowy hill wearing flat-sole shoes, you appreciate the value of a good tread. That effect is amplified when driving.

"You're moving a lot more weight, and you're having to move horizontally on the surface," says Joe Maher, a product manager with Continental Tire. "The grip of the tire is really your only contact to the road surface. The car's only going to be as good as that contact patch."

Most states require tires only to have at least 2/32 inch of tread depth. This is fine on dry roads and somewhat dicey on wet ones. Drivers cope; you don't see cars abandoned if a half-inch of rain falls on Memphis.

But in snow, any tread below 4/32 inch is considered useless. The car may only come to a stop with the help of another object in its path.

A new all-season tire has at least 10/32 inch of tread. But even it won't grip like a winter tire.

Winter tires marketed for use throughout the winter in northern and mountainous regions have softer, more pliable rubber and a modified tread pattern, both of which help the tire grip snow and ice in cold temperatures.

"You can take a car with an awesome four-wheel-drive system and put a tire that's a high performance summer tire and you could render it almost useless in the snow because the tires have got no grip," says Matt Mullins, chief instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School in South Carolina. "On the other hand, you could take your regular old car and put an awesome set of snow tires on and you'd be amazed where you could go."

"I think up North people know this," he says.

No one can drive on ice. Not even you.

It never snows down South.

OK, it sometimes snows. But the six inches that Storm Pax brought to some regions is largely being described as a once-a-decade event. Atlanta, for example, averages .4 inches for the entire month of February. In some regions, cumulative snowfall has been dropping sharply since the 1960s.

That helps explain why Southerners tend to opt for two-wheel drive cars like the Toyota Camry, rather than the Subaru, the best-selling car in Vermont and Colorado.

"When (snow) does happen, it melts the next day," says Lowrance. "We had 3 inches yesterday and it's 55 degrees today; 95 percent of the snow's melted off the roads."

Therein lies a related phenomenon, something plenty of other Web posters highlighted last week. All those roads in Texas and Georgia with stranded cars: Snow had begun to melt, then iced over, creating slick roads that are near impossible for even experienced Yankees to navigate.

Sandra Outland, a former Iowan who knows how to handle snow, ventured out in Dallas during the storms only to find herself crawling back at 5 mph on ice.

"If they're having ice and it's sleeting, the road crews can't put stuff down because the ice is just going to cover it up. They have to wait until it's ended so they can put the treatment on top of it."

Locals opt to stay home, a particularly smart move given that this advice may be the extent of the snow-driving training they've received.

Until now, driving on snow was purely hypothetical

Driving schools were largely closed during the heavy snow days last week, re-opening in the sunny, warm days that followed.

"When there's snow or ice on the road, the county doesn't allow us to have students on the road," said William Powell, a manager at Jordan Driving School, which trains high-school students in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. "The only really adverse conditions we go out in are rain."

His instructors provide some classroom tips for snow: turn on your low beams; increase your following and braking distance; turn into a skid. But given that there's no opportunity for real-world experience, the overarching lesson is this: Stay home.

Which may explain the shock Northerners display at the sight of desolate cities, schools and offices.

Textile designer Kristen Hilt, a Massachusetts native who now works in North Carolina, drove her summer VW bug to work on clear, plowed main roads on the "worst" storm day last week only to find that all but one of her three dozen colleagues had stayed put at home.

"It's like a freaking national Southern holiday down here," she said. "I was pretty amazed by all this."