YAKIMA, Wash. — The winter driving season might not start until later this month, but today marks the first day that motorists can drive on studded tires. The tires, which have dozens of spikes, improve grip in snow and ice. Chains are another option.

But both have problems. Chains are cumbersome to install in cold weather. They can break, causing damage to cars and trucks. Studded tires cause millions of dollars in damage to roads, according to the state Department of Transportation.

This season, however, drivers have a quieter alternative — a tire sock — that’s less destructive to roadways.

A tire sock is a fabric sheath that looks like a giant shower cap that fits over a car tire. They are used in 35 countries and Colorado, but were not an option in Washington until earlier this year when the Legislature unanimously passed a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, requiring the Washington State Patrol to design a process for approving tire socks.

To be approved, tire socks have to perform as well as chains and meet standards widely used in Europe, said Melissa Van Gorkom, equipment standards manager for Washington State Patrol.

And while the bill opens the potential for many brands of tire socks, only one company has submitted results necessary for approval, she said.

AutoSock was approved in September for use on passenger vehicles. The company is testing it for use on commercial vehicles, Van Gorkom said.

Jerry Marshall, branch manager for Six Robblees’ Inc., in Yakima, said he expects sales to significantly pick up this year. The store has been carrying the AutoSock for four years.

“Most consumers are not aware of it,” Marshall said.

“If I sell 1,000 pairs of steel chains, I probably sell 20 pairs of AutoSocks,” he said.

But that could change because many new cars don’t have enough room between the wheel and wheel hub to accommodate chains, he said.

Tire socks have their pros and cons, according to Marshall, who said he’s tested them in about 6inches of fresh snow.

“I was really impressed,” but they don’t do as well on ice and mixed conditions, he said.

They probably aren’t as durable as a pair of chains, especially on bare pavement, he said. However, they are much easier to put on and take off.

“For somebody who’s just not physically able to put chains on, they’re ideal,” Marshall said.

To put them on, a person pulls the sock over as much of the tire as possible, drives forward about one yard, and then covers the rest of the wheel.

Like chains, drivers should drive less than 30 mph when using tire socks, Marshall said.

AutoSocks for a passenger vehicle sell from about $70 to $100, depending on tire size.

Shipping companies could be interested if a tire sock is approved for commercial trucks in Washington.

Chains for trucks can weigh hundreds of pounds and take 30 to 90 minutes to put on, said Mike Bunday, general manager for Floyd Blinsky Trucking. The Yakima-based company has a fleet of 60 trucks.

A quicker alternative would mean saving money and less time drivers have to spend exposed to other vehicles.

Broken chains can damage truck bodies, tires and trailers, adding up to thousands of dollars.

“That’s part of our expense in the trucking industry,” Bunday said.

• Dan Catchpole can be reached at 509-759-7850 or dcatchpole@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/dcatchpole.