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Vail Daily column: Be safe around chain-up areas

Commercial vehicles operating on Interstate 70 between mile marker 133 in Dotsero and mile marker 259 in Morrison are required to carry chains between Sept. 1 and May 31. The Colorado Department of Transportation makes the determination on when to put the chain law into effect based on road and weather conditions. Failure to carry chains when operating a commercial motor vehicle is punishable by law and carries a fine of $69. If the driver of a commercial vehicle fails to chain up when required, it is a fine of $579 and if the subsequent unchained vehicle blocks the roadway, it is a $1,157 fine.

As a result of these circumstances, the chain-up area, located eastbound at mile marker 178 on I-70 through Vail, can be difficult to navigate in the winter. It is not only dangerous because of the road conditions, but also because of the large amount of traffic that can build up in the area. The same is true for the chain-down area located westbound at mile marker 179. In December 2009, a driver who was taking his chains off was struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle. In 2011, two more people were struck by a passing vehicle as they chained up and one was sent to the hospital in serious condition. To help prevent another tragedy, the Vail Police Department would like to offer the following safety reminders for the winter season.

There are two common scenarios that cause accidents in the chain-up area. The first scenario is when the chain-up area is full of semi trucks and a car fails to move into the left lane as instructed by the illuminated signs at the beginning of the chain-up area. A semi truck, which has limited visibility and expects the slow lane to be moving slowly, enters traffic “cutting off” the car. The car then hits a semi truck or, worse yet, a person chaining up.

The second and most common scenario is as follows: A car traveling through the chain-up area hits a patch of ice while being driven faster than the 50 mph speed limit, and slides into a semi truck, another car, or one of the people chaining up on the interstate.

Here are a few reminders to get us all through the winter safely:

Always remember to move over to the fast lane. An officer is usually located at the beginning of the chain-up area, not only to inform truck drivers they are required to chain-up by law, but to move passenger cars over to the left lane. It can become very congested in the chain-up area and it's sometimes difficult for trucks to maneuver into an open spot to put on their chains. This can result in semi trucks moving slowly, or even stopping, in the area, causing congestion. In addition, the snow can cover the white fog line, making it difficult to tell the difference between the right lane and the shoulder. Often truck drivers put their chains on very close to the right lane boundary because of the number of trucks utilizing the area. This not only puts the driver in danger, but contributes to the congestion problem.

Remember to follow the illuminated speed limit signs. These signs are located near the chain-up area at eastbound mile marker 177 and the chain-down area at westbound mile marker 179. When the chain law is in effect, the speed limit is reduced to 50 mph. This speed limit slows down traffic during low visibility so truck drivers can safely merge into the left lane when they have finished placing chains on their trucks.

Failure to follow either of these reminders could result in a traffic ticket from an officer or, worse yet, a crash!

Slow down and maintain a safe distance to the vehicle in front of you. Regardless of the speed limit, ensure you are able to maintain control of your vehicle at all times. Also keep in mind that during inclement weather the stopping distance of your vehicle increases greatly, so keep your distance from the vehicle in front of you.

Ensure your vehicle is in proper working condition and plan ahead. Besides making sure your vehicle is running properly, check that your tires are inflated properly and have enough tread. Ensure you have windshield washer fluid, preferably with de-icing solution added, to maintain good visibility. Keep your vehicle stocked with necessary equipment, such as flares, flashlight, traffic triangles, etc., should you be involved in an accident and need to exit your vehicle while on the roadway.

On behalf of the Vail Police Department, we offer these driving tips to help you navigate the snowy roads this winter.

Craig Westering is an officer with the Vail Police Department.

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