Seventy-two days into the 197-day studded tire season, and Kenai Peninsula drivers have only experienced two days of actual snowfall.
Although the roads may have been washed out, shaken and soggy during that time, there has been no significant, long-lasting snow or ice accumulation on peninsula roads.
In the meantime, studded tires continue to roll over road conditions similar to the 168 days of the year that studs are not allowed south of 60 North Latitude. This creates a potential dilemma that Bill Parrish, service manager at the Alyeska Sales and Service in Kenai, pointed out.
"Definitely, studs are going to wear out, and roads are going to wear out. But which wears out faster, we'll see," Parrish said.
Which will last longer? The roads or the studs? And is there an alternative?
"Certainly, studded tires accelerate the wear and tear on our roads," said Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Assistant Regional Director Murph O'Brien.
While there hasn't been much snow this year, studs have helped motorists stop, go and turn on the peninsula's icy roads.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"To determine how this warm season with studded tires will affect roads is pretty hard to say."
A 1996 DOT study exploring options for reducing stud-related pavement wear said Alaska spends $5 million annually to repair stud-related damage. The study also suggested studded driving on dry roads could minimize safety.
An analysis of Alaska winter driving conditions showed that, during the studded tire season, primary roads are covered by snow or ice only about 5 percent of the time, and bare and-or dry the other 95 percent of the season.
It also said although studded tires offer better traction on ice than do nonstudded tires, tests showed there was little difference on snow and studded tires actually reduced stopping ability on dry pavement.
The study said the majority of rutting (deformation of the paved surface) on high-volume roads is caused by studded tires on passenger vehicles, and 20 percent of Alaska's pavement wear is caused by between 3 and 6 percent of vehicles that continue to use studs during the summer.
Alaska pavement wear rates average about 22 tons per million studded-tire passes, the study said. This is equivalent to 250,000 cars with conventional studs on all four tires passing over a single lane of a single mile of road. According to the study, that amount of wear could destroy enough pavement to fill a large dump truck.
Parrish said studs should last between two and six years, "depending on the driver." But he said there is no absolute way of determining how much wear current conditions could have on studs.
"I doubt you'll ruin tires in one winter," he said. "But driving on dry concrete, you'll definitely shorten the life of your studs."
Rick Gilmore, operations manager for Johnson's Tire Service, said the tip of the stud is the only part that is supposed to touch the ground. He said people's driving habits may contribute to loss of studs, however.
"If you spin your wheels, you're going to do damage to the studs, but not necessarily the tip," Gilmore said. "The studs have a Tungston tip on them, one of the hardest things known to man."
The DOT study encouraged using lightweight metal alloy studs of less than or equal to 1.1 grams, as opposed to the heavier conventional steel studs weighing 1.9 grams or more. According to the study, tires with lighter studs could reduce highway damage by 50 percent, cost as much and are equally as effective.
"All of the ruts in the road are primarily caused by steel studs," Gilmore said. "We use a metal alloy stud, that's what we sell exclusively."
Parrish disagreed with the study and with Gilmore, however, saying the aluminum lightweight studs generally have a shorter lifespan.
"Those lightweight studs don't last," he said. "We've had people come in here to buy new (studded) tires a year after buying them from a competitor. That's a lot to have to buy another $400 set of tires again."
In spite of the minimal snow, studded tire sales have not waned. Both Parrish and Gilmore said their respective companies have matched annual sales.
"Overall, we've had a very successful year," Gilmore said. "But it's not as intense as it normally is."
Parrish said the Kenai Alyeska store alone is on pace to sell between 2,000 and 3,000 sets of studded tires. There just wasn't the frenetic rush that generally occurs with the first snow.
"Instead of being all in two weeks, it's been spread out," he said.
The DOT study explored a number of mandates that would limit pavement damage. These included controlling stud quality at the retail level, limiting the number of studs per tire, encouraging mandated use of studded tires on more than one axle and shortening the season.
In lieu of these mandates, area DOT superintendent Carl High said the state has experimented with asphalt compositions that are more durable.
"They're constantly trying to improve our mix design to be a little more resistant to studs," High said. "We use harder aggregates and stone mastic asphalt."
The study said using the stone mastic reduced wear by an additional 30 percent.
O'Brien said continued dry roads may call for the DOT to adopt one of the mandates suggested in the study. But he said one winter with minimal snow won't be cause for a panic.
"If this anomaly persists, then we'd probably reduce the length of stud season," he said. "But if we're back to normal next winter, one spike in the ground isn't going to make that much of a difference."
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