Studded tire ban is overdue

Over the years, proposals to ban studded tires in Oregon have gotten no traction in Salem, where tire makers and lawmakers always quietly slide the issue into the political ditch.

Now the critics of studs are taking a new route — the citizens' initiative — and are hoping to call the long-overdue question on studded tires: Are they worth the considerable damage they cause to Oregon highways and streets?

We don't think so, but we're not prepared to take a formal position on an initiative that still is some distance from the ballot. Either way, we welcome what the Legislature has always avoided — a full and open public debate about the safety, costs and equity issues related to studded tires.

There are ferocious arguments about these tires, and many of the tens of thousands of Oregonians who put them on their vehicles every November believe that no less than the safety of their families is at stake. The rural-urban divide also surfaces, with people who live in colder, icier places such as central and eastern Oregon sneering that it's easy for people who never leave the not-so-mean streets of Portland to live without studded tires.

Well, yes. But somehow rural Minnesotans, to name a place that makes winter in say, Bend or Burns, look absolutely mild, manage to safely get around, even though that state has banned studded tires. Wisconsin and Illinois also have banned studs. There's more going on here than namby-pamby city folks trying to make life tougher for rural Oregonians.

The issue is whether Oregon is going to confront the heavy damage — you've seen the ruts and raveling — that studded tires inflict every year. A research report in 2000 estimated that studded tires cause $50 million in damage annually to state and local highways in Oregon. Whether the actual damage is $30 million or $60 million, it's a cost the users of studs are foisting onto other motorists.

Defenders of studded tires insist they are essential for safe winter driving. The experience in other states, and the best research, argues otherwise. A study conducted by the Washington Department of Transportation in 2002 concluded that studded tires produce the best traction only in a limited window of temperatures very near the freezing mark. At temperatures both above and below that narrow band, studless snow tires provide better traction.

Tire makers are continually improving the performance of snow tires, and the latest tires, with softer rubber, clearly outperform studded tires in most conditions. Yes, the best new snow tires are somewhat more expensive than studded tires, but again, if the question is about cost, what about that $50 million bill handed to taxpayers every year? Research has found that a typical 30,000-mile studded tire will destroy between one-half and three-quarters of a ton of asphalt during its useful life. And paying an extra five or 10 bucks a tire for an alternative to studs is too much?

In a perfect world, the Legislature would hold public hearings leading to a carefully written law that would phase out studded tires while ensuring that motorists, especially those in wintry rural areas, remain safe. Since Oregonians don't live in that world, or have that Legislature, the only other route is the citizens' initiative. If you get a chance, sign a petition to put a ban on studded tires on the Oregon ballot.

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