Caltrans Checkpoint

Caltrans Says I Need Tire Chains…Now What?

Posted: 12/26/19

Frequently Asked Questions to Get You Prepped for Winter Driving

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It’s winter, and a chilly storm has brought fresh snowfall to the San Bernardino Mountains making for the ultimate winter wonderland. The opportunities abound for skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, and other activities making a getaway weekend to Big Bear Lake an absolute must.

While you’re planning your weekend jaunt, it’s important to consider the realities of traveling in winter conditions.

Do I really need chains? It’s not even snowing.

In winter, you will need to carry tire chains or other traction devices in your vehicle whether or not you actually use them. Chains or other traction devices must be carried at all times from Nov. 1 through Apr. 1. Enforceable by any road authority. You will need to adhere to all chain control restrictions as Caltrans issues them, including full road closures.

As defined in Section 605 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC), tire traction devices are designed to improve vehicle traction, braking, and cornering upon snow or ice-covered surfaces.

Road conditions and chain restriction locations can be found on the Caltrans Quickmaps feature. It is recommended that you stay up to date with road conditions as they can change quickly and without warning.

How do I find the right chains for my tires?

Check your vehicle owners manual and your tires for specifications on tire chains. It’s important to buy chains or other traction that are the correct size for your tires. Link-type chains that are too big will bang against the body your vehicle causing significant damage. Chains and other traction that are too small won’t fit around the tire at all.

Where can I find tire chains and traction devices?

Tire traction is sold at most auto supply shops, hardware stores, and some convenience stores. It’s important to call store location ahead of time to check the type of traction devices they carry. Keep in mind that stock sells out quickly when snowy conditions exist.

Please note, a vast majority of these places will only sell chains/traction (with a final sale restriction) and not rent.

What kinds of traction devices are there?

Apart from link-type tire chains, Alternative Traction Devices include metal cable chains, plastic or vinyl hub cap anchored devices, and other synthetic materials like AutoSocks. It’s important to refer to your vehicle’s manufacturer guide for guidance on chain/traction sizing and specifications.

Keep in mind that Caltrans and California Highway Patrol reserve the right to prohibit any vehicle from entering a chain control area if it’s determined that traction devices do not meet CVC, Section 605 requirements.

Which tires do I put chains/traction devices on?

Chains and traction devices are to be installed on the wheels of you drive axle. Refer to your vehicle guide to determine if your vehicle if front axle or rear axle drive.
All-wheel drive vehicles and 4-wheel drive vehicles may have chains installed on either drive axle, but the rear axle is preferred, unless the vehicle manufacturer recommends the front axle.

How do you even put chains/traction devices on?

The instructions in your tire chain kit will give you a step by step. However, if you’re a visual learner, YouTube has some great, easy-to-follow, tutorials.

How fast can I drive with tire chains?

Generally, 20 to 30 mph is the recommended speed limit for driving with snow chains. This helps prevent chains from breaking and from potentially damaging your vehicle.
Do not drive on dry roads with chains as it can significantly wear down both the chains and your tire tread.

Can studded tires and snow tires replace the need to carry/install chains?

No. Though studded tires are legal in California from Nov. 1 until Apr. 30 each year, studded tires are not considered tire traction devices and may not be used in lieu of chains.

Snow tires have the designation “Mud & Snow” or an abbreviation such as “M-S,” “M+S,” or “M/S” marked on the tire sidewall. Tires without this designation are not considered snow tires. Snow tires must also have at least 6/32-inch (3/16”) of tread depth (about 1/2 of the original tread depth). Same as studded tire, snow tires may not be used in lieu of chains.

My car rental company won’t let me put chains on. Am I excused from carrying/wearing chains?

Many car rental companies may not allow chains on their inventory for various reasons, however this does not excuse you from carrying them or installing them if Caltrans requires it. The best bet if you’re worried about snowy roads is to rent either an all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicle for your journey.

The manufacturer of my vehicle recommends that chains not be installed on it. Do I still have to carry/wear chains?

Yes. Many vehicles which will not accommodate conventional link-type chains may accommodate Alternative Traction Devices. Bottom line, if chain control is in effect, you must comply for your safety and the safety of others.

I have a 4-Wheel or All-Wheel drive vehicle and I’m towing a trailer. Do I need chains?

You need to use chains if you’re towing a trailer. If the trailer has brakes, you must have at least one axle chained.

What do the chain control statuses mean? R1, R2, etc.?

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.
Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel-drive vehicles under 6,500 pounds gross weight and equipped with snow tires on all four wheels. Chains for one set of drive wheels must be carried by four wheel-drive vehicles using snow tires.
Chains are required on all vehicles without exception.
Road closure

And just some things to remember:

It is recommended that you carry extra supplies in your vehicle like a jack, a shovel, kitty litter, and ice scrapers to help manage snow/ice conditions.

It is recommended that you carry extra food, water, and blankets in your vehicle as traffic can cause severe delays at any time of day.

It is recommended that you travel on a full tank of gas in case you need to reroute, and it is recommended that you keep your phone charged in case you need to find directions or call for help along the way.