Is the traction law helping winter travel?

In the legislature

Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties in the Colorado House of Representatives, plans to re-introduce a bill requiring winter motorists to have adequate tires while driving Interstate 70 between roughly Golden and Dotsero. The bill is co-sponsored by Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale. That bill would essentially apply rules that now apply to truckers to passenger vehicles, too. The bill wouldn’t include equipment checks, but would allow police to ticket ill-equipped drivers who block the highway during storms.

A similar bill failed last year.

EAGLE COUNTY — The early season snow that’s covered ski slopes has fallen on roads, too. That’s given a new Colorado Department of Transportation policy a quick workout, perhaps with positive results.

The department earlier this fall started a new policy for Interstate 70 that imposes the state’s existing traction law as required by conditions. So far, conditions have caused transportation officials to put the law into effect 66 times between Oct. 22 and Dec. 1.

Violators who cause accidents or close lanes can be ticketed and fined. So far, no one has received a ticket.

Amy Ford, director of communications for the department of transportation, said that so far, the Colorado State Patrol is using the law to educate motorists about what the law requires.

That law is a bit complex, particularly regarding what kinds of tires are required for different kinds of passenger vehicles, but motorists are basically required to have either good tires or traction devices such as chains or other equipment when the law is in effect.

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In the world of the traction law, “good tires” can mean a few different things.

On four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles, good tires are all-season tires with at least one-eighth inch of tread. On front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicles, good tires mean snow-rated tires with the same minimum tread depth. Tire chains are tire chains, but alternative devices include a relatively new import from Europe, the AutoSock, a fabric, re-usable wheel cover that seems to work well. According to a video posted on the company’s website, the devices take just a few minutes to install, and will greatly improve traction on snowy and icy roads.

A pair of AutoSocks for a front-wheel-drive sedan costs between $70 and $100. That’s about, or less than, the cost of one high-quality snow tire.

The I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit group made up of various governments and businesses along the mountain corridor, for this season has found six distributors for the AutoSock, and sales are apparently brisk.

“They’re selling like gangbusters at the NAPA store in Frisco,” I-70 Coalition Executive Director Margaret Bowes said.

Be Prepared

Many of those purchases may be from “throw it in the trunk” types who want devices on hand in case they’re needed.

That kind of preparedness is what state officials are looking for.

“It seems like people are willing to comply if they know what the law is,” Bowes said. “Until this year, I’d say a majority of drivers didn’t know what the law requires. This educational campaign is a critical first step.”

Properly-equipped vehicles certainly isn’t the only answer to helping avoid snowstorm-related traffic jams, but they’re an important part of the equation.

“We’ve found that 60 percent of all congestion on highways is caused by incidents, and not just in the mountains,” Ford said. “And for every minute your car is spun out, it takes four minutes to clear the lane behind you. When you add weather and traffic volume, you see the impact (better equipment) can have.”

A massive Sunday-afternoon storm in early 2013 caused an hours-long jam on I-70, with some drivers reporting trips to Denver of eight hours or more. Since that winter, state transportation officials have been looking for ways to keep the roads flowing during snowstorms.

Plans put in place during the winter of 2014-15 included beefing up the number of snowplows available and quicker responses to accidents and other incidents.

Ford said those plans helped reduce weather-related crashes by 47 percent last winter. And, while there weren’t the number of massive storms, Ford said there were more storms overall.

“We think the combination of weather, operations and education worked well,” she said.

Both Ford and Bowes said that better equipped vehicles will only help an already improving situation on Sundays and other big traffic days.

“We’re hopeful,” Ford said. “There are so many elements that go into being able to manage a storm. When you look at the stopping distances for tires with good tread … any piece that helps you drive better in those conditions will help how that corridor runs.”

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