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Got chains? Your guide to winter driving

Maggie O'Neill  |

To carry snow chains or not to carry snow chains – that is not the question for anyone travelling through the mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada during the winter. And that's because motorists should definitely have them on hand, according to Liza Whitmore, Caltrans District 3 Public Information Officer – Sierra Area.

"All motorists traveling in higher elevations, above 2,000 to 4,000 feet, during the winter months should carry chains," she said. "Even if the weather is predicted to be sunny, delays can occur and a storm may be on tap for your return over the pass."

Consider November 1 through April 30 the official winter travel window. People who frequently travel over the summit should be sure to have chains. The potential negative outcomes for being without include needing to turn around, heading back to town to look for chains or being cited – or even towed in the event that a vehicle blocks a roadway and keeps snow removal equipment from coming through, Whitmore said.

"[T]he consequences of traveling in the winter to higher elevations where rain turns to snow without being adequately prepared can be significant -- being stranded, without water, food, warm clothing -- we see folks in flip-flops trying to put on chains, enough gas in the tank or windshield washer fluid/good wipers can lead to very unsafe situations," she said.

Knowing your R1, R2 and R3s

There are three levels of chain control that are used by Caltrans: these include the R1, R2 and R3 designations. The first two levels, R1 and R2, require all vehicles, including trucks, to put on chains. The only exception is vehicles that are four-wheel or all-wheel drive and that have snow tires. However, these snow tires should have 'MS' or 'M+S' on the sidewall to indicate their use in the mud and snow. R3 is a different story altogether, however.

"For R3, all vehicles and trucks need to chain up, but that level of chain control is not used on either I-80 or U.S. Hwy 50," Whitmore said. "When storms that intense occur, Caltrans closes the roadway. Caltrans may hold traffic temporarily on either side of the pass when white-out conditions occur, when there are major traffic incidents or too many spinouts or when too many cars on the roadway create increased chances for collisions."

May the force be with you

Motorists who do not have chains will need to turn around at a chain control area and will be unable to continue over the pass, Whitmore said. While motorists may be lucky enough to find a gas station nearby selling the right size of chains, they also may find the supply short or the chains overpriced.

"Because there are many different types of tires, one cannot assume that auto parts stores or service stations in Truckee, Cisco or Kingvale will have the size you require," Whitmore said. "Additionally, prices there are most likely much higher than one would pay at your local auto parts store."

Chains can be found on sale during the nonwinter months. It's also important to have plenty of opportunity to practice putting chains on and off before having to use them officially on the roadway, Whitmore said.

"You don’t want to learn how in 22-degree, windy, snowy weather in the dark, on the side of the road," she said.

Chain neophyte?

Motorists who have chains in their vehicle but don't know how to put them on can seek help at a Caltrans-designated chain installation area. How does one find these areas in the midst of a white chaos? Simply keep your eyes peeled for signs up on poles along widened shoulder areas that designate a chain installation area.

As well, permit contractors there should be able to help put on chains – and to help take them off, too, on the other side of the pass. They do not sell chains, however. The approved charge to put chains on is $30 and for help taking them off is $15. To identify a contractor, look for a bib that the permitted contractor should be wearing, which also should have a Caltrans identification number.

"The[se] are permit contractors who sign on with Caltrans for permission to install and remove chains at Caltrans chain control areas when snow conditions require chain controls," she said.

Are snow tires enough?

Snow and mud tires, also sometimes called all-terrain tires, can help to prevent the need for four-wheel or all-wheel-drive vehicles to chain up during R1 and R2 chain control conditions, but these conditions can quickly worsen.

"Conditions can change dramatically with elevation changes, storm activity, temperature fluctuations or roadway conditions," she said. "While R3 is not used on I-80 or U.S. Hwy 50, county or private roadways may present conditions which warrant the use of chains on four- or all-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires."

But driving all-terrain or snow tires during dry conditions usually increases their wear, leading many motorists to remove them during non-winter months. They also cause more road noise and are discouraged unless weather or roadway conditions indicate their use.

Be snow aware

Predictions for rain or cold temperatures in the valley could be a signal of possible snow at the summit. Dark clouds hovering over Donner or Echo Summit could mean questionable weather ahead – keep in mind that both the Interstate 80 and U.S. 50 passes are at high elevations -- above 7,000 feet. Those who are on their way up to the pass should pay attention to roads signs that indicate particular weather conditions or what to expect ahead.

"Overhead message signs alert motorists to chain control miles ahead of the chain control stations, so drivers should not be surprised to find controls are in place," Whitmore said.

With or without chains, it's best to delay travel if at all possible.

"When the weather is nasty over the summits, the best course of action is to delay your travel until weather and roadway conditions improve," Whitmore said. "Most storms do not last more than a day or two and slippery road conditions, even with chains or snow tires, can make driving hazardous."

And even when the roadway is clear, melting snow or rain can freeze up and result in icy conditions, particularly on bridges or in shaded areas.

"The speed limit depends on the roadway conditions -- slow down on wet, icy or snowy roadways, even when chain controls are not in place," she said.