By John Reese
USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs
When it comes to winter driving in Germany, there’s always some confusion about winter tires and driving laws.
Living in Stuttgart, community members are advised that at the onset of winter, they’ll need the right set of tires for their personal vehicles. But what type of special winter tires, if any, are required by German law?
There are two types of symbols to look for on European winter tires: A snowflake in a three-peak mountain or “M+S,” meaning the tires are designed to work in mud and snow. You can’t get by with just swapping out the “drive” tires – you’ve got to change all four tires.
German law doesn’t specifically mandate the use of a certain type of winter tire, only that the tire be designed for the type of weather conditions expected to be encountered. Tires must be suitable to the weather; this means snow, ice and freezing conditions on the road. For example, black ice, a thin coating of ice that’s hard to detect before you’re sliding on it, that is especially present on bridges. Bridges are usually preceded by an icy condition warning sign.
In addition to the snowflake or M+S marking, tires must have at least four millimeters of tread pattern. In some places, snow chains may be required. To avoid unnecessary damage to the roads, snow chains are to be used only where signs advising motorists to use their chains are posted or when directed by the Polizei. Winter tires should be used in all winter conditions, so driving with chains on fair weather tires isn’t acceptable.
The rule of thumb used in Germany has long been “O to O,” meaning that motorists should change their set of tires from standard to winter in October and keep them on until Ostern (Easter). Practically speaking, the Polizei don’t go around checking your tires, but if you’re the cause of an accident and a stau (traffic jam) stalling the flow of traffic, you can expect a ticket of 20 euros for not having the correct tires and another 40 euros for causing the jam. In Austria, the fines can range between 35 euros to a painful 5,000 euros for non-compliance. Drivers who obstruct or endanger traffic due to summer tires will likely be ticketed.
Additionally, insurance companies may deny coverage to motorists driving with summer tires during winter. Some auto insurance companies might deny or invalidate claims, making the driver liable for part or all of any damage or injury if an accident occurs without winter tires. This isn’t automatic, however.
Further, the Polizei can assign blame to a motorist without snow tires, regardless of who actually caused the accident.
Tires specifically designed for snow will function better than the multi-purpose ones, but the most important thing is for a good set of tires with at least 1.6 millimeters of tread pattern. For best safety practices, however, tires with a tread pattern of less than 4 millimeters should be replaced.
Tires can be inspected for safety at many installation Auto Crafts Shops, auto dealers, most tire shops or road service providers like ADAC.
An Alpine tip is that when the temperature drops constantly below 7 degrees centigrade, the use of winter tires is a lot safer, even on dry roads or rain, because of their special mixture which guarantees better grip in low temperatures. In short, if it’s getting cold, put the winter tires on.
Besides your personal vehicle, it’s also wise to be careful when renting a car. Some rental agencies may charge an additional fee for winter tires. Check before you rent, depending on where you’ll be driving. Winter tires are required by law in several other European countries, including Sweden, Finland and the Baltics. If you’re still unclear on the type of tires needed, contact the garrison Safety Office or speak to someone at Vehicle Registration. The garrison’s instructors for the USAREUR driver’s license are also a good resource for winter driving pointers.
The bottom line is that winter driving conditions add a dangerous dimension to driving – use winter tires, common sense and slow down.
Click the link to download: Winter Tire Safety Information
Winter Driving Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Do I have to have winter tires or all-season tires during winter weather?
A: Either type is acceptable for winter use, so long as they have the “M + S” marking or this symbol: on the sidewall.
Q: Should I under-inflate my tires in winter so I get better traction?
A: No, tires should be kept at recommended levels at all times. Under inflated tires can cause slower steering reaction and increase your risk of losing control of your vehicle.
Q: How worn can my tires be before they are unsafe?
Q: If road conditions are black I can stay home, right?
A: Not necessarily. Tenant commanders in the USAG Stuttgart footprint make their own operational decisions in inclement weather. Check with your chain of command or leadership to find out your organization’s standard procedures.
Q: Where I can find more information about winter driving safety?
A: The U.S. Army Safety Center has a number of resources on their website at https://safety.army.mil.