Motorists are breaking the law if they try to traverse snow-covered mountain roads in Colorado in two-wheel drive vehicles without specialized tires, chains or other grip-control devices.
But now a bill that’s nearing passage in the state legislature would make Colorado’s traction statute a snow-or-shine, all-winter-long policy on Interstate 70, mandating that from September through May drivers traveling between Morrison and Dotsero prepare their vehicles for whatever Mother Nature has in store.
And there’s more: The measure also instructs the Colorado Department of Transportation to explore how to best educate the public about the would-be law and enforce it. Checkpoints are one possible tool to ensure the policy is being followed.
“Sometimes one side of (the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels) is spring and the other side of Eisenhower is a white out,” said state Sen. Kerry Dononvan, a Vail Democrat. “You can’t react in that amount of time — instantaneously putting on snow tires. Winter can come at any moment.”
Donovan said Colorado’s fast-changing weather creates a gap in current law, which allows transportation officials to declare “traction-law conditions” and require motorists meet certain standards to travel some stretches of road.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has since 1967 had the ability to enact the state’s traction law, formally known as “Code 15,” when winter weather deteriorates road conditions. But the restrictions, mandating vehicles have four-wheel or all-wheel drive, snow tires or some other traction device, weren’t really used until 2015 as officials tried to reduce the number of crashes hindering high-country travel.
“We were just seeing more issues on I-70 that were creating closures,” said Tracy Trulove, a CDOT spokeswoman.
The use of the traction law also coincides with an increase in traffic on I-70. This ski season saw the busiest-ever day on the route, when on Sunday, Jan. 27, following several days of heavy snow, the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels saw 54,270 cars passing through. That knocked Sunday, July 31, 2016, from the busiest-day ever for the tunnels.
But, as you know if you’ve ever driven I-70 in a snowstorm, the temporary traction law hasn’t been able to end the problems altogether. Between October and December 2018, CDOT enacted the traction law 76 times, but during that same period there were 63 spin-outs or slide-offs and 167 crashes.
House Bill 1207 is the Colorado legislature’s latest attempt to unclog I-70 through the high country. In recent years they’ve debated similar winter-long traction law measures that fell short because of skepticism about their necessity and the ability to enforce them.
The legislation this year, however, has broad bipartisan support and is just a few votes away from landing on Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.
“Anything we can do to improve traffic and improve safety on I-70, particularly in the wintertime, it just one more step toward solving a very troublesome and difficult set of problems,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who is also leading the push for the measure.
It’s not just safety that’s a concern. When I-70 is closed for long periods, high country businesses tally hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue lost from their increasingly busy economic lifeline.
Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Eagle who pushed the bill through the House, said that unprepared drivers can impact the Western Slope’s bottom line.
CDOT and the state’s trucking industry are in support of House Bill 1207, with the latter saying it’s a matter of safety for their drivers carrying fuel from the Front Range to the Western Slope.
Semi-trailer drivers are already required to carry chains with them from September through May.
The legislation calls for violators to be slapped with a Class B traffic infraction, which comes with a $100 fine and $32 surcharge. That jumps to a $500 fine with a $156 surcharge if a violation results in one or more lanes of traffic being closed.
Two-wheel drive motorists without proper tires wouldn’t be required to use chains or so-called auto-socks in dry conditions during the snow season, but would have to be carrying them in case winter weather arises. And, specifically, their tires would need to have a “mud and snow” or all-weather rating.
Additionally, vehicles not in compliance could also get off I-70 onto a side road where the proposed law wouldn’t apply, thought CDOT could still enact temporary traction restrictions elsewhere if there are snowy or icy conditions.
State Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican, was a “no” vote on the bill in past years. But he helped shepherd an amendment mandating enforcement, which led him to support this year’s effort. He envisions checkpoints like the ones used in California on Interstate 80 over Donner Pass.
“I voted ‘no’ in the past because there was no enforcement,” Scott said. “We’re tough on trucks, we really watch trucks.”
The bill, if signed into law, would impact every driver making their way across the state or visiting the mountains will face fines if they don’t comply.
Earlier versions of the bill failed over concerns about putting an undue and unfair cost burden on drivers. But proponents say their primary consideration is safety and people need to be prepared.
“In some cases, those can be the worst offenders,” Scott said of out-of-staters on I-70. “They don’t mean to be — they just don’t know, because they are from Florida or some place like that, where they just don’t fully understand what they’re driving into. Hopefully a check station would help not only get them what they need, but potentially save their life.”
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Donovan agrees. “It should be safety first, right? We don’t make those considerations with other laws. You can’t not wear your seatbelt because it’s broken,” she said. “You have to wear your seatbelt because it saves your life.”
Other considerations that come along with such a large policy include what do about drivers of rental cars. Proponents, however, cite the same safety argument.
If signed, the legislation would go into effect on Aug. 2 — meaning it could be enforced during the 2019-20 snow season.
Staff writer Jason Blevins contributed to this report.