In severe winter weather conditions, a truck driver's choices are pretty limited: Pull over and wait it out or chain up and keep going if the roads aren't completely closed.
State-by-state chains laws vary. Some of the laws – California and Colorado – seem to be pages in length. Other states don't even mention chaining up.
Here's the thing with chain laws: Even if you're opting to pull over and wait every time the roads get dicey, you could find yourself with a ticket if you're not carrying chains.
So what's a trucker to do? Every year Land Line staff comb the laws of the Lower 48 and check and double check chain laws for the annual OOIDA Chain Law Roundup.
It's a handy guide to hang on to when you're prepping for winter driving. All attempts are made to ensure the information is up-to-date and accurate, but if you are in doubt at all, call ahead to states you will be running through if the weather has taken a turn for the worse.
A lesson learned from past winters: States can change those laws on a dime or even invoke emergency declarations that supersede state statute. So pay attention to those road signs and local radio, especially if you're in the south. They seem more prone to go "off the books" when it comes to chains.
California does not require trucks to carry chains during any specified time period. When the weather hits, though, it takes at least eight chains for a standard tractor-trailer configuration to comply with the regulations.
Chains or cables?
Conventional tire chains and cable chains, as well as other less conventional devices such as "Spikes-Spiders," are permitted. Trucks with cable-type chains are legal, but may be restricted at times because of severe conditions – which can happen commonly in the higher elevations such as Donner Pass.
California is OK with automatic chaining systems. However, if you have automatic chains, you may still be required to add additional "traditional" chains to fully comply with the placement requirements.
On the tractor, must be the outside tires of both drive axles. If conditions escalate, you could be required to chain the inside tires of the main drive axle. Trucks running wide-base singles on the drives must chain up all four tires any time chains are required. You have options on the placement of the two required chains on the trailer axles. Chains can be placed on the outside of either axle or staggered with one chain on the outside of each axle.
Chains are most often required in the higher mountain passes of northern California, such as:
- Interstate 5 north of Redding;
- Interstate 80 over Donner Pass between Sacramento and Reno; and
- U.S. Highway 50 over Echo Summit between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.
Chains are also sometimes required on:
- State Route 58 near Tehachapi between Bakersfield and Mojave;
- Interstate 15 over Cajon Pass between Victorville and San Bernardino; and
- Interstate 5 over Tejon Pass between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.
However, snow can fall unseasonably at higher elevations at many locations within California. Chains may be required at any time at these higher elevations when conditions warrant.
Colorado's chain law applies to every state highway, federal highway and interstate throughout the state. The chain law is in effect when drivers are notified by roadside signs. You can also call 511. Truckers will need chains for the four tires of the drive axle to be in compliance when the law is in effect. There is no requirement to carry extra chains or cables.
Truckers traveling specifically on I-70 between mile marker 133 in Dotsero County and mile marker 259 in Morrison County must carry sufficient chains to be in compliance from Sept. 1 through May 31. The state provides 21 chain-up locations along the I-70 corridor. If you get busted without chains on this stretch of road, you will be fined $50 plus a $16 surcharge.
If you violate Colorado's chain law, you'd better be ready to pay. You can be fined $500, plus a $79 surcharge, for not putting on chains when required. If you block the roadway because you didn't chain up when the law was in effect, you can be dinged with a $1,000 fine, plus a $157 surcharge.
There are two levels of the chain law:
Level 1/Code 17 – Single drive axle, combination commercial vehicles must chain up all four drive tires. Cables are not allowed in this instance. All other commercial vehicles must have either snow tires or chains to proceed.
Level 2/Code 18 – Chains are required for all commercial vehicles. Again, all four tires of single-drive tractors must be chained. For dual-drive axle tractors, you're only required to chain four drive tires. Outside tires of drive axles must have chains. Inside tires may have cables.
Chains or cables?
The short answer is that you have a lot of options in Colorado. The following are the approved devices, along with any design specifications and/or any restrictions on the use of the devices:
- Metal chains must consist of two circular metal loops, one on each side of the tire, connected by at least nine evenly spaced loops across the tread. Dual tire chains are acceptable.
- Wheel sanders must carry enough sand to get the vehicle through the restricted area;
- Automatic chains that spin under the drive wheels automatically as traction is lost;
- Textile traction device, a fabric boot that encompasses the tire.
Currently, the only textile device that has been approved for use on Colorado highways is the AutoSock.
Cables are allowed in only two instances: If they are made with steel cross member rollers of 0.415 inches or greater in diameter (and even those can't be used on single drive axle tractors) or they can be used on tires where chains are not already required.
The Colorado regulations actually give the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol the power to dictate when chain laws go into effect. The regulations address only design and placement.
Wait it out in Colorado?
For those of you who really don't want to chain up or conditions have made roads impassable, Colorado has added information about emergency parking on I-70.
When things get really bad, the state may open up emergency parking east of mile marker 133.
"There is no truck parking east of milepost 133 or in the Vail Valley. Trucks waiting out a chain law or Vail Pass closure should not proceed past Dotsero – exit 133," the Colorado State Patrol's website states. "If you have already passed milepost 133, you will need to chain up if required. There is no long-term parking until you reach Denver. If you are traveling westbound, you will need to find parking in the Metro Denver area before heading up the first grade near Morrison."
Cables and chains are permitted only from Nov. 15 through April 30. No minimum number of chains are outlined in the regulations.
Here's another state that permits the use of tire chains "for safety because of snow, ice or other conditions tending to cause a vehicle to slide or skid." The use of studded tires on all motor vehicles using the highways is permitted from Oct. 15 to April 15.
State officials can restrict travel on highways during emergency situations. Officials have three different levels of bans to choose from.
Level I ban encourages extreme caution when traveling roadways and advises that non-essential travel be avoided.
Level II ban permits travel only by emergency vehicles, essential government personnel, health care providers, and vehicles carrying food and fuel.
Level III ban restricts travel to emergency vehicles and essential employees such as snowplow operators. The Level III ban also prohibits retaliation by employers against employees complying with the travel ban.
As with most states that rarely encounter snow and ice, Georgia will permit the use of tire chains or tires equipped with safety metal spike studs upon any vehicle when required for safety because of snow or ice.
The Georgia DOT may close or limit access to portions of a state highway due to inclement weather. In the event this occurs, posted signage will be used to communicate to drivers that tire chains are required to proceed.
Enacted back in 2014, for commercial vehicles with four or more drive wheels, tire chains must be installed on each of the outermost drive axle tires when driving on a road that has been declared "limited access" because of inclement weather. Previously, any four drive wheel tires required chains.
"Tire chains" is defined as "metal chains which consist of two circular metal loops, positioned on each side of a tire, connected by not less than nine evenly spaced chains across the tire tread or any other traction devices as provided for by rules and regulations of the commissioner of public safety."
Furthermore, any driver who causes a wreck or blocks the flow of traffic when not complying with the above laws on a limited-access highway will be fined up to $1,000.
Officials in Idaho can determine, at any time, that Lookout Pass on I-90, Fourth of July Pass on I-90, or Lolo Pass on Highway 12 are unsafe, either individually or as a group. If that happens, signs will alert you to chain up.
If the alert is in effect, you will have to chain up a minimum of one tire on each side of drive axles and one axle at or near the rear of each trailer. Idaho defines chains as two circular metal loops, one on each side of the tire, connected by not less than nine evenly spaced chains across the tread.
On a side note, studs are prohibited between May 1 and Sept. 30.
There are no specific dates for the use of tire chains or how many must be used. However, the state is painstakingly specific about the type of chains that are permitted.
Here's the exact language from the Kentucky statute: "Where chains are used on rubber-tired vehicles, the cross chains shall be not more than three-fourths (3/4) of an inch in thickness or diameter, and shall be spaced not more than 10 inches apart, around the circumference of the tires."
Vehicles cannot have tires with metal studs, wires, spikes or other metal protruding from the tire tread from May 1 through Oct. 1. Other than that time frame, there is nothing noted within the law regulating the use of tire chains.
The Maryland regulations can be a bit misleading. In one section of the regulations, the state has the boilerplate language permitting the use of snow chains if needed.
However, elsewhere in the regs it is stated that chains may be required in Maryland if a snow emergency is declared. Snow emergencies can be declared for individual roads or statewide. Travel – other than for motorcycles – is prohibited on any highway that is designated and appropriately signposted as a vehicle emergency route when a snow emergency is in effect, unless the vehicle is equipped with chains or snow tires on at least one wheel at each end of a driving axle.
"From Nov. 1 through March 31, owners of vehicles registered in Allegany County, Carroll County, Frederick County, Garrett County, or Washington County are exempt from the prohibition of the use of tires… (with) any block, stud, flange, cleat, or spike or any other protuberance of any material, other than rubber, that projects beyond the tread of the traction surface of the tire."
Massachusetts prohibits the use of studded tires and chains between May 1 and Nov. 1 without a permit. The law does not specifically mention chains; however, the Massachusetts State Patrol confirmed the regulation applies the same way to chains. It should also be noted that commercial vehicles can be ordered off the roadways during "snow emergencies."
Montana cleaned up its law a bit in 2015, but nothing significant has changed. The chain law goes into effect when roadside signs tell all drivers to chain up. The state's requirement when the law is in effect is for all "driver wheels" to be chained up.
There aren't specific dates for chain laws to be in effect. Again, roadside signs will let you know when chaining up is required. In Nevada, truckers will need to chain at least two wheels on the main drive axle. You are also required to chain the "braking wheels of any trailing vehicle in a combination of vehicles."
New Jersey goes a little beyond the standard "chains are permitted when needed" directive. The state allows chains of reasonable proportions when roads, streets and highways are slippery, because of rain, snow, ice, oil, manner of construction or other reason.
However, no chains shall be used at any time on improved highways when highway conditions do not make such use necessary for the "safety of life or property." Also, New Jersey prohibits the use of chains "likely to be thrown so as to endanger any person or property."
If New York officials, either state or local, post a route as a snow emergency route, all vehicles traveling on it will be required to have snow tires and/or chains. There are no specifics mandating the number of chains or placement.
Oregon's law applies to all highways in the state. Signs will tell you when you are required to carry chains and when you are required to use them. You will need to have six chains on hand to comply in Oregon.
Again, you have a few options for which tires you are required to chain on the tractor, so here goes:
- A tandem-drive axle tractor must have chains on two tires on each side of the primary drive axle (in other words, all four tires of the main axle); or
- If both axles are powered, one tire on each side of each drive axle (again, four chains total required; you just don't have to chain the inside tires).
Now on the trailer, here's the deal:
Chains must also be placed on two tires, one on each side, of any axle
on the trailer. The chains can be both on the front axle, both on the rear axle or staggered with one outside tire on the front and the outside tire of the opposite rear axle.
This is another state that can declare emergency snow routes. If officials declare a snow emergency route when the roadway is covered with ice or snow, only vehicles with snow tires or "tire chains on two tires on a driven axle" may proceed.
The South Dakota DOT has the authority to restrict travel on roads. Signs will alert you to these restrictions. Violating the restrictions could land you with a Class 2 Misdemeanor conviction. Tire chains or "sufficient traction devices" are allowed. You don't have to wait for the signs to tell you to put on your chains. Chains are also permitted if conditions tending to cause a skid are present.
Tennessee sends mixed signals with its regulations. In one reg, it says that it is "permissible" to use snow chains when conditions warrant. However, elsewhere, the Volunteer State requires that every truck "likely to encounter" conditions carry at least one set of chains.
So to be safe, you might want to have a couple of chains on board and ready to go.
The Utah DOT has the authority to restrict highway travel between
Oct. 1 and April 30 to vehicles either running chains or at least having them in your possession. You will need to install four or more chains on the "drive wheel" tires.
Vermont has a "traffic committee" that will decide if use of chains will be required. The reg mandates that the "advance notice shall be given to the traveling public through signage and, whenever possible, through public service announcements."
This language also mandates that adequate space be provided to chain up.
The regulation does not outline the required number or placement of chains.
Chains must be carried Nov. 1 through April 1. It takes five chains to comply with the requirement. However, all vehicles of more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight must carry two extra chains in the event that road conditions require the use of more chains or if chains in use are broken or otherwise useless.
Chains or cables?
Chains must have two sides attached with cross-sections. Cables can be permitted. Plastic chains are prohibited.
On a dual axle tractor the outside tires on both axles will need to be chained in addition to one tire on either side of either trailer axle. Tractors equipped with wide-base singles will have to chain each tire on each drive axle.
On the following routes all vehicles and combinations of vehicles of more than 10,000 pounds shall carry sufficient tire chains from Nov. 1 to April 1 to meet the requirements:
- I-90 between North Bend (mile marker 32) and Ellensburg (mile marker 101)
- I-82 between Ellensburg Exit 3 (mile marker 3) and Selah Exit 26 (mile marker 26)
- SR 97 between mile marker 145 and Junction SR 2
- SR 2 between Dryden (mile marker 108) and Index (mile marker 36)
- SR 12 between Packwood (mile marker 135) and Naches (mile marker 187)
- SR 97 between Columbia River (mile marker 0) and Toppenish (mile marker 59)
- SR 410 from Enumclaw to Naches
- SR 20 between Tonasket (mile marker 262) and Kettle Falls (mile marker 342)
- SR 155 between Omak (mile marker 79) and Nespelem (mile marker 45)
- SR 970 between mile marker 0 and mile marker 10
- SR 14 between Gibbons Creek (mile marker 18) and intersection of Cliffs Road (mile marker 108.4)
- SR-542 Mt. Baker Highway between mile marker 22.91 and mile marker 57.26
While much of the chain requirements are the responsibility of the Washington State Patrol, the regulations still outline most of the basics.
When Wyoming officials enact the chain law, commercial vehicles must have chains on at least the two outside tires of one drive axle. Signs will notify you when the chain law is in effect.
Not complying can cost you a minimum of $250. But if you block the highway because you don't have chains on, expect a $750 fine. LL
Editor's note: The annual OOIDA chain law advisory is a collaborative effort of the Land Line staff. Special thanks to Staff Writer and Research Associate Tyson Fisher for his tireless research on this annual effort.