Gov. Polis signs new traction, snowplow laws outside Eisenhower Tunnel
As cars began to pile up on the east side of Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel on Monday afternoon, Summit County residents were again reminded of the often treacherous nature of winter driving in the mountains. But drivers may be more prepared to deal with the elements by this time next year.
Gov. Jared Polis and representatives from around the state gathered under a soft dusting of snow outside of the tunnel on Friday afternoon, hoping to make the roadways to western Colorado a little safer. Polis signed two new transportation bills into effect at the meeting, both aimed at improving safety and keeping traffic moving in the corridor.
“These are both safety bills, but they’re more than that because for regular Coloradans these are also bills to reduce traffic,” said Polis, who spoke in front of a crowd — including Summit County Commissioners Thomas Davidson and Elizabeth Lawrence — inside the tunnel’s operations room before signing the bills. “This will really have an impact on keeping people moving in the High Country, which is good for business, good for quality of life and also good for safety.”
The first bill signed was a measure to increase the traction standards for drivers making the trip along Interstate 70. Under the previous law, motorists only needed to think about their equipment after the Colorado Department of Transportation put commercial or passenger vehicle traction laws into effect. Now, the restrictions are essentially in effect for the entire winter, from Sept. 1 through May 31, for anyone driving between Dotsero (milepost 133) and Morrison (milepost 259).
The bill also raised the bar for traction requirements. Drivers will only legally be allowed on the roadway if they have a tire tread depth of at least 3/16th of an inch (previously 1/8th of an inch), along with four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, or either mud and snow or all-weather rated tires. Commercial vehicle drivers are required to carry chains for at least four tires, or an alternate traction device, throughout the entire period in case traction laws go into effect.
“It will improve safety; it will reduce traffic jams,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, one of the bill’s prime sponsors along with Sens. Bob Rankin and Kerry Donovan. “This is one way we can start reducing traffic on I-70, and keep our local economy humming.”
While all agree that state officials had the right idea in mind in coming up with the new law, some are concerned about enforcing the measure.
Colin Remillard, a local spokesman with the Colorado State Patrol, said that any bill aimed at improving the traffic flow on I-70 would be helpful, but noted that educating the public on the law could be an issue, especially for out of state visitors.
“In every winter storm there’s always dozens of passenger cars without the ability to get up the hill,” said Remillard. “That creates a domino effect, where if there’s cars spun out it’s really hard for them to treat it, and we’re in a position we can’t clear the road. So this is a step in the right direction.
“Enforcement could be an interesting issue. I’m not saying ignorance is an excuse, but for people coming up from Florida for a week, this type of thing really isn’t on their radar.”
Peter Griff, owner of Breckenridge Rental Car, reciprocated Remillard’s concerns, noting that car rental companies in Denver won’t be keeping the law in mind when renting out cars.
“I think it’s just an ongoing issue of people not knowing the area,” said Griff. “They don’t know the laws or how they work. They think they’re all set with that four-wheel drive car, even if they don’t have the right tires. I think the intention is in the right place, but it’s a matter of how enforceable this is.”
In addition to the traction bill, Polis signed off on a new law increasing penalties for motorists who unsafely pass snowplows on the road. Under the former law, a person who overtakes an operating snowplow while failing to “exercise more than ordinary care and caution” could be charged with a class B traffic offense. The new law creates more a severe punishment in the form of a class A traffic offense for drivers that pass an operating snowplow in “echelon formation” with one or more other snowplows. Echelon formation denotes snowplows arranged diagonally, with one unit behind and either to the right or left of the other.
Class A traffic offenses are punishable by a fine typically between $15 and $100 along with a surcharge.
According to CDOT, plows operating in echelon formation is the safest and most efficient snow removal method, and attempting to pass is dangerous for all parties involved due to potential white out conditions coming off the plows and ridges of snow between lanes.
“It creates a class A traffic infraction for passing a snowplow in echelon formation,” said Polis. “Its another safety measure, also one that will prevent accidents which lead to road closures, again to keep people moving in the high country safely.”
“We ask CDOT to keep us safe, and these two bills will hopefully pay that forward by helping to keep CDOT safe while they’re helping us,” added Sen. Donovan.