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Is It Illegal to Drive Without Snow Tires, Snow Chains?

Snow is a dangerous reality of many roads and highways across America, and snow tires and snow chains are a good way to avoid a potential accident.

But whether it's a good idea or not to equip your vehicle with these traction devices, it's quite another thing to say they're required by law. And if they're required, what exactly is the penalty for not using them?

Winter driving laws vary across the states, but here's a general overview of when it's illegal to drive without snow chains or snow tires:

Some States Require Snow Tires, Chains

There is no federal law that requires drivers to carry snow chains or drive with special tires regardless of the weather. However, there are laws in some states which do require either snow chains or snow tires. For example:

  • Colorado requires noncommercial drivers to use tire chains or "adequate snow tires" on mountain highways during heavy snow conditions. Law enforcement may designate a road or pass as requiring either snow tires or chains, or as requiring chains only (depending on conditions).
  • California has a similar three-tiered system for requiring chains or snow chains, with four-wheel drive vehicles given more slack than those with two-wheel drive.
  • Utah allows vehicles with snow tires, steel link chains, elastomeric chains, or four-wheel drive vehicles with at least two snow tires to use the highways in adverse weather conditions.

In states that require either snow chains or snow tires, a large amount of discretion is given to state and local law enforcement to determine whether a section of highway will require these precautions. If a noncommercial driver somehow manages to pass into a "chain control" area of road without chains or snow tires, the driver may face a hefty fine.

No Chains Creates Liability

Disobeying state law or the instructions of state highway enforcement with regard to snow traction devices may well be illegal. However, drivers may not see this as a problem if the only consequence is a $100 or $200 ticket.

But if a vehicle is not in compliance with chain requirements and crashes, the lack of chains or snow tires may be enough to show the driver was negligent per se. Add the cost of an accident to that snow chain ticket, and obeying winter driving laws starts to look a lot cheaper.

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