Many motorists think SUVs or other vehicles with four-wheel drive are the ticket to driving safely on snow, ice or both.
But it turns out, they can slip and slide about as much as other vehicles.
On The Early Show Wednesday, CBS News correspondent Susan McGinnis got behind the wheel of an SUV and got what she called "alarming" results.
But she learned from an expert that winter tires could provide plenty of extra winter driving safety.
McGinnis visited the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where instructor Kurt Spitzner told her drivers of SUVs and four-wheel drive vehicles may well be tooling around with a false sense of security.
He said many SUV drivers are overconfident on snow and ice, and that can be a dangerous combination.
"Whenever there's a big snowstorm up here," Spitzner observed, "it seems like it's mostly sport utilities that are winding up in the ditches."
Spitzner took McGinnis out on the school's winter test track in a family SUV. With its high seats and four wheel drive, McGinnis says, she felt safe, only to find out just how easy it is to lose control.
McGinnis described conditions that day as "horrible ... nothing but ice and snow."
Spitzner pointed out that, while four wheel drive does help you accelerate better on snowy roads, that's actually part of the problem: "Everybody thinks that since we started so well, certainly I can stop as well."
But when McGinnis hit the brakes to make an easy curve, at only 20 mph, she plowed right off the "road."
She says she was "totally out of control."
"And," noted Spitzner, "it was instantaneous. There was no grip there at all."
But would four-wheel drive give the grip to avoid a collision?
A separate test simulated that kind of maneuver, but when McGinnis braked and swerved to avoid an obstacle in her lane, the SUV lost its traction and skidded into oncoming "traffic," in the form of cones set up on the course.
"We hit two rows of cones," McGinnis remarked, "but if that was a real world accident, what would have happened?"
"It would have been probably deadly," Spitzner replied.
Spitzer said the key to staying safe on winter roads isn't what you drive, but the kind of tires you're driving on.
Snow tires largely disappeared from U.S. roads when all-season tires came into fashion, McGinnis said.
But now, tires just for winter are back, made with high-tech treads to ride softer on ice and snow, to grip them better.
Says Spitzner, "Winter tires will have improved performance in acceleration, braking, and cornering. They don't howl like the old snow tires use to. They're actually quite quiet, and they have a smooth ride."
And the difference they made when McGinnis tried them was, in her words, "amazing."
An SUV with regular tires was pitted against an identical SUV with winter tires.
In a curve on curves, the winter tires took McGinnis right through, while the SUV without them didn't do nearly as well. Ditto for the accident avoidance test.
"It really can mean the difference between having an accident and not having an accident?" McGinnis asked.
"It could have saved your life, just by using the proper tire" if the accident avoidance test had been real, Spitzner responded. He said the winter tires "absolutely" make a huge safety difference.
He says winter tires handle just as well as regular tires on dry roads, and cost about the same.
If you have to drive on snow and ice, says Spitzner, they're the safest investment you'll ever make: "You can have the best vehicle possible, but if the tires aren't up to the job, you're still not going to be in control."
Experts say even with winter tires, it's easy to lose control on snow and ice if you're going too fast. So, McGinnis urged, you really do need to slow down, and use winter tires for the best control.
Experts add that it's not a good idea to use winter tires all year because they wear out a lot more quickly in warm weather. The best thing to do is have a tire shop put them on your car at the start of winter, and take them off at the beginning of spring. If you use them like that, they should last you at least three winters. The reality is, you will have two sets of tires, and will need to store one set in your garage while the other is on your car.
Winter tires, McGinnis continued, can be put on any kind of vehicle, from sedans to minivans, trucks and sports cars.
No matter what kind of vehicle you drive, experts say you need to install winter tires on all four wheels tog et the maximum benefit on snow and ice.
Experts say four-wheel drive does help on snow and ice if you're driving up steep hills or through deep snow; otherwise, a two-wheel drive vehicle with winter tires is probably all you need.
For more on buying winter tires, click here and here.
On average, winter tires cost about $100-$150 each, the same price as a good all-season tire.
Experts say all-season tires really aren't great for all seasons: Their grip on snow and ice is mediocre, at best.
Winter tires are sold by most major tire manufacturers, including Goodyear, Michelin, Bridgestone, Dunlop and Pirelli.
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