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

Heavy snowfall on a country road. Driving on it becomes dangerous � �
By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 18, 2014 | Last updated on December 30, 2019

Snow is a dangerous reality of many roads and highways across America, and snow tires and snow chains are a good way for your car to maintain traction on the road and avoid potential accidents.

But whether it's a necessity where you live to equip your vehicle with these traction devices, it's quite another thing to require them by law. 

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 snow tires. However, there are laws in some states that do require either snow chains or snow tires in certain conditions. 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 under certain conditions. But when severe enough, officials can require all vehicles to use chains.
  • Utah requires all two-wheel drive vehicles to use snow tires under certain conditions. Chains are also acceptable to use.

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 traffic ticket and hefty fine.

No Chains Creates Liability

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

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. That means if you skid into another car and cause damage and injuries, you could be held liable in a lawsuit. 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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