Motorist’s guide to winter driving and traction laws |

Motorist’s guide to winter driving and traction laws

Sawyer D'Argonne
Summit Daily News

A snowplow clears snow from U.S. Highway 40 near the base of Rabbit Ears Pass. (Photo by Matt Stensland)

FRISCO — Wintry weather has arrived, which can mean dangerous road conditions for motorists driving through the mountains.

If you’ve driven Interstate 70 during a storm, you’ve likely noticed signs about traction and chain laws, which are put in place when road conditions become dangerous due to snow, ice and wind.

The laws can be implemented by Colorado State Patrol, the Colorado Department of Transportation and even snowplow drivers who notice hazardous roads on their routes. The goal is not only to protect drivers without proper tires but also to avoid pileups or road closures due to unprepared drivers.


Keep up with the conditions:

• Find the latest forecast and recent weather stories here.
• View Steamboat webcams here.
• Find information from the National Weather Service, including storm warnings and advisories at
• The Colorado Department of Transportation provides road conditions, closures and traffic cameras at
• For travel information by phone, call 511 (in Colorado) or dial 303-639-1111.
• Find information about avalanche danger and conditions from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
• For flight information, visit

“Clearly I-70 is a main artery in Colorado for freight trucks, passenger vehicles and people coming up to ski,”CDOT spokesperson Tracy Trulove said. “We find that when people are prepared and drive for the conditions, slowing down to get where they’re going, the conditions can be navigated. It’s the people in a hurry, not prepared to drive in these conditions or not used to driving in a Colorado winter that end up in a ditch or causing a chain reaction on the highway.”

There are two types of laws that can come into place during extreme weather conditions: the traction law and the passenger vehicle chain law.

The traction law, which is typically enacted with commercial chain laws, requires tires on all cars to have at least one-eighth of an inch of tread. Additionally, all non-four-wheel drive vehicles must be fitted with either snow tires or tires with a mud and snow designation.

CDOT recommends using the “quarter test” to determine the size of the treads on your tires. Simply insert a quarter into the tread with George Washington’s head going in first. If the top of Washington’s head is covered by the tread, the tires are acceptable. The test should be done around different areas of the tire, and if the top of the head is visible at any point, new tires are required.

Use a quarter to check tire tread. If the top of George Washington’s head is visible, it’s time for new tires.

If weather conditions are especially treacherous, the passenger vehicle chain law may go into effect, requiring every vehicle on the roadway to have chains or an alternative traction device like AutoSocks.

Trulove noted that passenger chain laws are rarely instituted and typically occur before a road is closed.

“We’ll use it if we’re not able to keep up with the snow, and we’re not able to keep the highway safe with just the traction law,” Trulove said. “Most times, we’re pretty close to closing roads right afterwards if we enact the passenger chain law.”

Despite signs and warnings on social media during storms, traction laws are often ignored, either because motorists are ignorant of their meaning or because they’re overly confident of their winter driving abilities.

“It’s a dynamic environment,” Colorado State Patrol spokesman Colin Remillard said. “People have to understand that this is a high-Alpine environment, and the weather can change rapidly. If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to be able to safely travel up here. You become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. I would say that with a large storm, there’s people ignoring the laws every time. Whether it’s chain laws for trucks, or tourists in rental cars, there’s at least a few in every major storm.”

Trulove said the potential punishments for failing to follow traction laws range from $130 to more than $650 in fines depending on the severity of the storm and the reason you got pulled over. In other words, if you get pulled over with inadequate tires, you’ll likely receive a fine on the lower end. But if you cause a pileup or chain reaction that shuts down the highway, your fine will be much heftier.

Officials with CDOT recommend that drivers in the area invest in a set of snow tires and say that all-season tires typically aren’t sufficient in the mountains. At 60 miles per hour on snowy pavement, snow tires need about 310 feet to stop, while all-season tires require more than 660 feet to stop.

Additionally CDOT recommends leaving extra room between your vehicle and others on the road when it’s snowing, taking things slow and giving snow plows plenty of space to work. Drivers also should keep a winter driving vehicle kit in their cars complete with blankets, water, a flashlight, a shovel and food.


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