From people living in the mountain communities to motorists planning to drive to higher elevations to play in the snow, everyone needs to know the rules about snow chains.
But this is sunny southern California! Not some snow-covered, icy, below zero Midwestern state! Why would anyone need these daunting devices?
Snow chains or cables add valuable traction when traversing through snowy and icy roadways. They are usually purchased to match the tire size and come in either linked chain or steel cable designs.
The California Vehicle Code, Section 605 defined tire traction devices as follows: “Tire traction devices are devices or mechanisms having a composition and design capable of improving vehicle traction, braking and cornering ability upon snow or ice-covered surfaces. Tire traction devices shall be constructed and assembled to provide sufficient structural integrity and to prevent accidental detachment from vehicles.”
According to the California Department of Transportation, “During the winter months, motorists may encounter traction chain controls in the mountain areas within California. When chain controls are established, signs will be posted along the road indicating the type of requirement.
There are three levels of chain requirements in California, as defined by Caltrans:
“Requirement 1 (R-1): Chains are required on all vehicles except passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks under 6,000 pounds gross weight and equipped with snow tires on at least two drive wheels. Chains must be carried by vehicles using snow tires. All vehicles towing trailers must have chains on one drive axle. Trailers with brakes must have chains on at least one axle.
“Requirement 2 (R2): Chains or traction devices are required on all vehicles except four-wheel/all-wheel-drive vehicles with snow-tread tires on all four wheels. Four-wheel/all-wheel-drive vehicles must carry traction devices in chain control areas.
“Requirement 3 (R3): Chains or traction devices are required on all vehicles, no exceptions.”
Motorists must follow the directions on the signs posted for chain controls or any instructions given by Caltrans or CHP personnel at chain control check points. Caltrans reserves the right to prevent any vehicle from entering a chain control area when it is determined the vehicle will experience difficulty in safely traveling the area.
For those who must travel, Caltrans said to be careful, chain up and drive slow. Rear-wheel-drive vehicles chain up on the rear-driving wheels. Front-wheel-drive vehicles install chains on the front-driving wheels. All-wheel-drive vehicles install chains on front driving/steering wheels or rear wheels. Four-wheel-drive vehicles – with four-wheel drive engaged – drivers chain up the front steering wheels or the rear wheels.
Additionally, from Nov. 1 to April 1, all vehicles are required to carry tire chains or cables when they enter a chain control area, even if it isn’t snowing. Drivers can be fined and be in big trouble for damages if involved in an accident where chains may have prevented an out-of-control situation. If a vehicle gets stuck and needs to be towed, the driver will also incur that cost.
Keeping abreast of the weather helps when visiting the mountains. Search weather apps for current and future conditions, but drivers must also realize that predictions cannot be 100% accurate at all times.
Control areas can change rapidly because of changing weather and road conditions. The Caltrans Highway Information Network allows drivers to check road conditions often. Motorists may telephone (800) 427-7623 for up to the minute information in California and western Nevada. The network is updated as conditions change and is voice-activated for safety and convenience. For up to date road conditions and closures, drivers can also follow CaltransHQ on Twitter or Facebook or check road conditions on their website or their phone app.
Most car rental companies will not supply chains, and many even forbid their use. If used, the renter may be responsible for damages to the vehicle as a result. Check with the rental company before taking any chances.
Many auto parts or big box stores will not accept returns on snow chains for any reason. Walmart is an example; they have signs posted advising of their strict no-return policy.
Snow tires can be identified by checking the sidewall of the tire for the letters MS, M/S, M+S, or the words “MUD AND SNOW,” or an image of a mountain with a snowflake. If any of those are present, drivers may be able to drive without chains in R-1 and R-2 conditions. The California Vehicle Code, Section 558 defined a snow-tread tire as
follows, “A ‘snow-tread tire’ is a tire which has a relatively deep and aggressive tread pattern compared with conventional passenger tread pattern.”
Caltrans said, “You must stop and put on chains when highway signs indicate chains are required. You can be cited by the California Highway Patrol and fined if you don’t. You will usually have about a mile between “Chains Required” signs and the checkpoint to install your chains.”
If chains are required, the speed limit automatically changes to 25 to 30 miles per hour.
At the “End of Chain Control” signs, find a safe area to get off the road and remove them.
On the busier highways, chain installers – or chain monkeys – are certified people that will charge a fee to install and remove chains for drivers. Charges vary, and cash is king with these services. CalTrans issues chain installers specific permits, and they even have to pass a test that involves untangling a set of chains and installing them on a vehicle in less than five minutes. These people can be identified by a badge they are required to wear. When using these services, note the badge number and get a receipt. Chain installers are not permitted to sell or rent chains.
The purpose of chains is to keep people safe on the road. It is best to know the ins and out of these seasonal traction devices to avoid a slippery disaster.
Diane Sieker can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.