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Stay Safe on the Roads with These CalTrans Winter Driving Tips


Winter driving on roads and highways in the snowcapped mountains of California can be a pleasant adventure or it can be frustrating, tiring and sometimes even hazardous. The California Department of Transportation provides the following information to help make your mountain driving safe.

Winterize Your Vehicle

Before heading to snow country, make sure your vehicle is in good running condition.

  • Check your brakes, windshield wipers, exhaust system and heater. Make sure they are in top condition.
  • Check Your Antifreeze. Make sure it’s properly filled and formulated for winter conditions.
  • Check Your Tires. Make sure they are inflated to the proper pressure and the tread is in good condition.
  • Replace Your Wiper Blades and Fill Your Windshield Wiper Reservoir. Install a set of new wiper blades and fill your wiper reservoir. A winter formula is available help de-ice your windshield. Some vehicles are also equipped with rear wipers. Make sure the wiper blades are in good condition and the reservoir is filled.
  • Check Your Chains. Make sure they are the proper size for your tires. Check the links and fasteners and make sure they are in good working order. If you’re a novice, practice putting them on your drive wheels. Make sure you know if your vehicle has front or rear wheel drive.

Travel Kit

Winter weather is never predictable. Expect the worst conditions. What would you do if you found yourself stranded miles from help during a snowstorm? Prepare an emergency kit for your car. We suggest that you stock your vehicle with the following:

  • Flashlight – carry extra batteries.
  • Warm Blankets and Extra Clothing – you may be forced to pull over during bad conditions and wait for weather to improve.
  • Water and Snacks- if there is a long delay, you’ll be glad you have them.
  • Clean Towel – to dry your hands after installing snow chains.
  • Ice Scraper or Commercial Deicer – to keep your windows clear of snow and ice.
  • Shovel – to free your vehicle if it gets snowed in.
  • Small Broom or Brush – to clear the snow off your vehicle.
  • Spare Key – many motorists have locked themselves out when they’ve stopped to put on chains.
  • Sand or Kitty Litter – if you should get stuck, you can place it down for extra traction.
Here in the Honey Lake Valley roads can quickly turn into skating rinks.
Here in the Honey Lake Valley roads can quickly turn into skating rinks.

Chain Controls and what they mean

  • R1: Chains or snow tread tires required. Snow tires must have a tread depth of 6/32″ with a ” M&S” imprint ont he tire’s sidewall.
  • R2: Chains are required on all vehicles except four wheel drives or all-wheel drives with snow tread tires on all four wheels.
  • R3: Chains are required – all vehicles with no exceptions!
  • R1 and R2 are the most common chain controls. The highway will usually be closed before an R-3 control is imposed.

During bad weather, you must carry chains. All vehicles (including four-wheel drive and vehicles with snow tires) must carry chains when traveling during snowy weather. If you don’t have chains in your possession, you may not be allowed to proceed.

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 final checkpoint. Make sure you pull safely off the roadway to fasten your chains. Do not stop in a traffic lane where you can endanger yourself or others. Chain control areas change rapidly from place to place depending on current weather and road conditions.

The speed limit when chains are required is 25-30 MPH. Speed limits are posted at various locations and enforced by radar.

Remember that chain installers are not Caltrans employees. They are independent business people who are licensed to put on chains. If you want to use their services, make sure you get a receipt and jot down the installer’s badge number on it. Having that badge number may help with any misunderstandings later. Chain installers are not allowed to sell or rent chains.

When removing chains, drive beyond the signs reading “End Chain Control”. Pull well off to the right where you can safely remove and store your chains for later use.

Be Prepared

ALLOW ENOUGH TIME. Trips to the mountains can take longer during winter, especially if you encounter storm conditions or icy roads. Get an early start and allow plenty of time to get to your destination.

KEEP YOUR FUEL TANK FULL. If may be necessary to change routes or turn back during a bad storm. You may also be in for a long delay if bad weather forces a highway closure.

SLOW DOWN AND BUCKLE UP FOR SAFETY. Highway speeds of 55 or 65 miles-per-hour may be possible in good weather but not during bad. Excessive speed is an invitation for trouble on snow or ice. Stopping distances are longer so make sure you leave plenty of space between your and the vehicles ahead. Power your vehicle down hills, use lower gears – not brakes – to control and maintain your speed. Avoid sudden stops and direction changes and remember that bridge decks and shady areas can be icy when other areas are not. Most accidents involve motorists who drive too fast for the conditions. A majority of those vehicles are equipped with four-wheel drive. Drivers of sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) should remember that SUV’s equipped with four-wheel drive provide more power for traction but not for stopping. Avoid that false sense of security!

DO NOT USE YOUR CRUISE-CONTROL when driving in snow or other slippery conditions.

DON’T PANIC. If you find yourself beginning to slide on snow or ice, take your foot off the gas and do not hit your brakes. Steer the front of your vehicle in the direction you wish to travel. If you must use the brakes, do not allow them to lock up by gently pumping the brake pedal. Most vehicles are now equipped with anti-lock (ABS) brakes. If your car has them, apply firm, steady pressure without pumping. The grinding noise you hear and the surging you feel in the pedal is normal and indicates that your anti-lock brakes are working properly, allowing you to maintain control of your vehicle while coming to a stop.

WATCH FOR BLACK ICE! Many people get into trouble by assuming the roads will not be slippery unless the temperature is freezing or below. Ice can form on road surfaces anytime the air temperature drops below 40 degrees, especially when it’s windy. Bridges and underpasses can be especially hazardous. However, these are not the only locations that “black ice” can form. Any low or shaded area, surrounded by landscape or with nearby source of water, can have icy spots. Late night and early morning hours are especially dangerous since moisture has had a change to accumulate.

BE MORE OBSERVANT. Visibility is often limited during poor weather. Slow down and keep a constant watch for other vehicles and snow removal equipment. Even Caltrans vehicles, marked with bright orange paint and equipped with flashing lights are hard to see when there is poor visibility. If you are following snow removal equipment, maintain a safe distance and watch for chunks of ice and other debris.

KEEP WINDSHIELD AND WINDOWS CLEAR. Utilize your vehicle’s defrosters and wipers to keep your windshield clear. Passing vehicles can also spray your car with mud and slush. Use your windshield washer accessory to keep your windshield clean. When driving through falling snow, turn on your headlights for extra visibility.

IF YOU STALL, PULL OVER AND STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE. Put your flashers on, stay warm and conserve fuel. If you keep your vehicle running, make sure your exhaust pipe is clear so carbon monoxide fumes don’t accumulate.

Anticipate Delays and Closures

Weather and road conditions can change rapidly; causing changes in chain control points. In some cases, the highway will even be closed because of unsafe conditions. The highway may be open when you begin your trip. but before you end it, it could have chain controls imposed or could close altogether. With unpredictable weather conditions, it’s best to plan for the worst.

Spinouts and accidents happen frequently during winter storms. These mishaps can force highway closures that last for several hours. Heavily traveled routes are particularly vulnerable to such closures due to their high traffic volumes. Avalanche control work regularly close Sierra highways when heavy snow accumulates on steep mountain slopes.

Zero visibility caused by high winds and blowing snow is another cause for closing a highway. This happens frequently on Interstate 80 over the Donner Summit during heavy winter storms.

Caltrans is trying to reduce the frequency and the length of closures on state highways due to spinouts and accidents. During major storms when traffic form is heavy, Caltrans may meter traffic. By letting fewer vehicles feed into the storm area, accidents and congestion are reduced. Waiting below the snow line is preferable to being caught in a traffic jam during a snow storm. Metering also give motorists the option of turning around and waiting out the delay in a warm place rather than waiting inside of their cars.

Check Conditions Frequently

Tune in to Caltrans radio. During storms Caltrans broadcasts road condition information on low frequency radio transmitters located along some mountain highways. Watch for flashing road signs and tune into the frequency listed. Transmissions are brief, informative and updated constantly.

To help keep you informed of changing conditions, Caltrans operates the Caltrans Highway Information Network (CHIN). Phone 1-800-427-ROAD (7623). As you travel, check road conditions often. You can use a cellular phone to dial the number above and get up-to-date information on any California Highway. This information is also available on the internet at

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor


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