Blizzard Conditions Call for Traction Laws

CDOT Enacts Traction Laws Along Front Range 

for the First Time

I grew up in Colorado. I remember days of -32 degrees and still going to school. I have pictures of drifts above the peak of our house as a kid (although I think that blizzard predates my birth).  Today's blizzard of March 23, 2016 rivals some of the worst snow storms I can remember.  Of course, being a solo-practitioner, the WORK GOES ON!  So, sitting here warm at my computer, I decided to write a blog about the new traction laws and the consequences facing Colorado motorists who violate these laws...

Yes, these are my "Blizzard" skis
and a shot from me skiing at Copper last weekend.

Currently, as I type this, all major interstates into and out of the Denver metro area are closed, DIA is closed, every person's work is closed, and the roads are impassable (see this Denver Post story for more).  This prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT to the natives and locals) to call for the first-ever implementation of the state's traction laws in the Front Range and Metro Area. (see this story for more info).  As someone who drives in Colorado all the time, and for a legal resident of Summit County, I have seen tons of the signs saying traction laws would be enforced.  However, I had never seen such a sign or warning until the last year or so. That's because although the law has existed for some time (most recent amendments were in 2012), it was only this most recent winter that the Colorado State Patrol and the CDOT folks started enforcing traction laws on passenger vehicles rather than just commercial haulers.  Per the Denver Post again: 
Colorado's traction law was in effect 143 times at various locations on the state's mountain highways between Oct. 22 and Jan. 20 as part of a campaign to unclog traffic through the high country.
But now these laws are being utilized state-wide by law enforcement as a method of traffic control.  CDOT has published this fact sheet regarding traction control laws.  The substance of the fact sheet is copied here for your edification and use: 
  • Traction Law and Passenger Vehicle Chain Law Traction Law (Code 15) — Use George’s Head to Check Your Tread.  If weather conditions require, CDOT will implement a Traction Law.  Under a Traction Law, motorists will need to have either snow tires, tires with the mud/snow (M+S) designation, or a four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicle — all tires must have a minimum one-eighth inch tread. 
  • Passenger Vehicle Chain Law (Code 16) — Chain Up or Stay Off.  During severe winter storms, CDOT will implement a Passenger Vehicle Chain Law — this is the final safety measure before the highway is closed. Under a Passenger Vehicle Chain Law, every vehicle on the roadway is required to have chains or an alternative traction device (like AutoSock). 
  • Fines: Motorists driving with inadequate equipment during a Traction Law or Passenger Vehicle Chain Law could be fined more than $130. If a motorist blocks the roadway because they have inadequate equipment during a Traction Law or Passenger Vehicle Chain Law, they could be fined more than $650. 
  • Test Your Tread:  Find out if your tires are safe for winter driving by doing the Quarter Test:
    • Insert a quarter upside down into your tire tread, with Washington’s head going in first. 
    • If the top of the head is covered by tread, you’re good to go. 
    • If the top of his head is visible at any point around the tire (test multiple points), you can’t drive when a Traction Law is called — you also likely need new tires. 
  • Traffic Facts: 
    • At 60 MPH on snowy pavement, winter tires require 310 ft. to stop. All-season tires require more than double that (668 ft.). 
    • In 2014, one of the worst traffic delays on the I-70 Mountain Corridor was caused by unprepared motorists. Severe delays were caused by 22 vehicles spinning out and causing crashes — 19 of those vehicles had worn tires. 
    • Traffic accidents — not volume — account for as much as 60 percent of all traffic delays. 
    • A crash that only takes 10 minutes to clear can delay traffic for an hour. 
In addition, CDOT has published a number of FAQ's on their website here: https://www.codot.gov/travel/winter-driving/TractionLaw.  At first glance the traction laws seem straightforward, but what if you are already ON the road when the traction laws are implemented?  How are you to know, first of all, and will a grace period be granted for any violations?  Because these laws are rooted in Title 42, and penalties are criminal in nature, are you not entitled to Due Process (notice being a key part of the Due Process Clause)?  And some Colorado lawmakers are trying to make the traction law (code 15) PERMANENT if you are traveling up the I-70 corridor in the winter and/or maybe even going so far as to require AWD/4WD vehicles to ALSO have snow tires (see text of the bill here).  I don't know about you, but I don't carry chains in my pick-up truck that would meet the requirements for the Code 16, and I'd have to check my tires to make sure they have a snowflake symbol, myself! 

So, the lawyer in me is intrigued....  I read through the FAQ's with an eye towards enforcement, and I really only have a problem with the last three questions here: 

What if I meet the requirements for the Traction Law (Code 15), but mid-trip a Passenger Vehicle Chain Law (Code 16) is activated. If I have no chains, will I be ticketed? Will I be asked to wait until the chain law is lifted?Yes to both questions. During a Passenger Vehicle Chain Law, every passenger vehicle must be equipped with chains or an alternative traction device (like an AutoSock). If you are driving without the proper equipment, you could be fined more than $130. If you block the roadway because you don’t have the proper equipment, you could be fined more than $650. If you aren’t carrying chains or a traction device with you, you will be required to wait until the chain law is lifted.

Do the Traction Law (Code 15) and Passenger Vehicle Chain Law (Code 16) apply to only I-70 or to the entire state?Both laws apply to the entire state, but during the 2015/16 winter, you’ll likely only see if called along the I-70 Mountain Corridor and connecting highways. During the 2016/17 winter, you will see the law activated along all interstates and state highways.

Is there a “limp home” provision during either the Traction Law (Code 15) or Passenger Vehicle Chain Law (Code 16)? Example: if a law goes into effect while at work, can we drive home?There is no “limp home” provision under either law. If you do not have the proper equipment during either law, you can be fined and restricted from the roadway for not only your safety, but also the safety of those around you. The best thing to do is make sure you have safe tires for winter driving and carry chains or an alternative traction device (like an AutoSock) in your vehicle at all times.
Let's analyze this more closely... 

Initially, I wanted to let readers know about the range of possible penalties for these violations.  that presents a problem because a violation is--at least at first glance--just a violation of the rules of the Transportation Commission. Oh, but wait, CDOT has the power to enforce and make rules pursuant to state statute.  Specifically, 42-4-228 provides that: 
(5) (a) No person shall drive or move a motor vehicle on any highway unless such vehicle is equipped with tires in safe operating condition in accordance with this subsection (5) and any supplemental rules and regulations promulgated by the executive director of the department.
(b) The executive director of the department shall promulgate such rules as the executive director deems necessary setting forth requirements of safe operating conditions for tires. These rules shall be utilized by law enforcement officers for visual inspection of tires and shall include methods for simple gauge measurement of tire tread depth.
Clearly, this is where the 2 CCR 601-14 rules from the Transportation Commission stem from.  A violation of 42-4-228 is considered a class 2 misdemeanor traffic offense. Violations for a class 2 traffic misdo are 10-90 days jail or $150-$300 fine, or both.  In addition, the DMV can penalize you if you hold a Colorado driver's license by allocating points against your license upon conviction or a plea of guilty (if you have a significant number of points accumulating, you may be in danger of losing your license if you have more than 12 points in any rolling 12 month period). In addition, you may be forced to complete community service hours, and ordered to pay court costs and restitution (if any). 

There appears to be a conflict here between what Colorado's statutes say and what the Fact Sheet CDOT published says.  I have no idea where CDOT is getting their information from, as that fine that they mention (upwards of $130) does not track with any reference guide, rule, statute, or other authority that I can find.  Furthermore, in my experience as an attorney, most fines are not stated that way (upwards of...).  In fact, most fines are a range of UP TO a certain amount, or a range is given. So, that's a problem.

Also, I understand why CDOT  might advise people that it's a violation not to have chains when a Code 16 is enacted, even if you were on the road already before it was enacted, but I think this is something I would LOVE to fight in court.  Especially, when that fact is combined with the no "limp home" answer above.  Lack of notice, lack of an opportunity to avoid committing the offense, and lack of just plain common sense means that this statute/rule and policy will likely be struck down on constitutional (overbroad, vague, due process, etc.) grounds. It's also outright bad law, when you think about public policy grounds.  

Now, obviously, it's best to have this equipment with you during all winter travel.  And it's good advice to be sure that you have good winter tires (or snow tires, or all terrain tires, or whatever you want to call them--beware there are DIFFERENT definitions).  But, here's the truth of the matter... 

If I am at work, with decent tires on my Silverado, and you enact a chain law while my dog is at home (or my kids at school/daycare/whatnot, if I had kids), and you expect me to stay stranded at work, and you think you can charge me with a jailable traffic misdemeanor, and I'll just pay the ticket... CDOT you're insane. 

If this happens to someone, please, I beg of you, talk to an attorney NOW! Even if this is a strict liability crime, there are defenses available to you.  The traffic attorney in me will cringe every time I see the traction laws enforced signs now.  Stay warm people!  Stay safe!