Another day, another snowstorm along the Interstate 70 corridor – replete with a slew of closures on Vail Pass and elsewhere on I-70. What better time to talk about enforcing traction laws to prevent spinouts and crashes and keep traffic flowing along Colorado’s economically vital east-west mountain corridor.
Bill targets drivers with bald tires, no chains on I-70
The Colorado House of Representatives on Monday, during yet another snow squall along the Interstate 70 corridor, overwhelmingly approved a bill that would add some teeth to existing traction laws for passenger vehicles traveling between Dotsero and Morrison during the winter.
Sponsored by Democrat Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, the Winter Conditions and Traction Control Requirements bill (HB-1207) passed 46-18, with five house Republicans joining Democrats in voting for the legislation, which now heads over to the state senate for deliberation.
“As I-70 drivers, we all know why this is important,” Roberts said. “When the road up to Vail Pass or the Eisenhower Tunnel is snowy enough, it turns into chaos up there and just totally shuts down the highway. A lot of times as you drive by, you see all these cars spun out who clearly don’t have the right tires and were not prepared to be traveling that stretch of road that day.”
HB-1207 requires that all motor vehicles traveling on I-70 between mileposts 133 (Dotsero) and 259 (Morrison) from Sept. 1 to May 31 be equipped with tires that have at least three-sixteenths of an inch of tread (up from the current two-sixteenths) or tires chains or alternative traction devices such as AutoSocks.
“[Spun-out cars and SUV’s] have a choking effect on our entire highway system and our local residents as well as any tourists who are not going to come up to our county anymore and spend their money because of how miserable the traffic is,” Roberts added.
The bill, which has the support of the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado State Patrol and local law enforcement, basically puts passenger vehicles on a level playing field with the commercial trucking industry, which has had strict chains laws in effect for years.
“People don’t understand before they start up the hill what they might need,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale. “This tells them that and it tells them they need to be equipped in case there is a traction law in effect. I’ve always said, tires chains are not that expensive. You just throw a set of chains in your trunk and you’re prepared, or a device like one of those sleeves.”
Rankin, a senate sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, said it will also apply to rental car companies but does not increase fines over current statutes that already apply to drivers with inadequate equipment traveling when a passenger vehicle chain law is in effect.
A non-commercial violator faces a class B traffic infraction, which carries a $100 fine and a $32 surcharge. If that violator causes a closure, it’s a $500 fine and $156 surcharge. Commercial truckers face a $500 fine if they’re caught without chains on the same stretch of I-70 between Labor Day and Memorial Day and $1,000 if they’re driving without chains and cause a closure.
“We’re not talking about checkpoints and inspections,” Rankin said of the new passenger vehicle law. “So, it’s really public awareness and encouragement of people to actually be prepared. It evidently really worked when they first put the trucker equivalent into place.”
For CDOT, the biggest aspect of the bill is that it spells out exactly what passenger vehicles need to be equipped with and then sets that Sept. 1 to May 31 timeline for that carrying that equipment.
“It puts the onus on the driver now to have this equipment period, regardless of whether the traction law has been called, simply between the times of Labor Day to Memorial Day,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said. “It puts them on par with the trucking.”
And Ford added that failure to properly equip your vehicle will be a little driving with a defective vehicle.
“Even if you’re up in the mountains in your Ford Escort in October and you’ve got bald tires and you get pulled over for speeding, I suspect that [tire tread or chains] is something they could still look at now,” Ford said.
The state’s ski industry backs the bill but wants to see a significant education campaign.
“We support it; it’s a good idea,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of the ski-industry lobbying group Colorado Ski County USA. “We also think that it really requires a massive education component in order to make it be effective.
“We hear from guests on the corridor that they don’t understand what CDOT’s signage means when they talk about the automobile traction law,” Mills added. “Does that mean they have to have chains all the time? Does that mean that if my tires are good enough, I don’t need that?”
Greg Fulton, president of the trucking lobby Colorado Motor Carriers Association, said his organization also backs the proposed law.
“We’re very supportive and we’ve been working with them on this; we think it’s an important measure,” Fulton said. “When we end up having somebody go sideways or lose their traction … we’re not sports cars. We’re not able to navigate quickly through that.”
And big rigs also rely on momentum climbing steep mountain passes.
“If you’ve got a very steep grade and we’ve got an automobile in front of us that doesn’t have adequate tread or an alternative traction device or chains … and we have to come to a complete stop, even when we’re perfectly chained up, it’s difficult to get going again,” Fulton said.