‘Chains required’ might not mean ‘chains on’

Snowy highway with Chains Required signWhen Washington's winter driving laws take effect Nov. 1, motorists might be confused by what "chains required" means.

Vehicles with 4-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) don't need to chain up, as long as all wheels are in gear and have approved traction tires.

But those drivers also must carry chains, even if they're not mounted. Confused? Let's take a look at what the Washington State Department of Transportation says.

Traction tires advised. Approved tires must have at least one-eighth inch of tread and be labeled Mud and Snow, M+S, All Season, or have a Mountain/Snowflake symbol.

Traction tires required. Standard tires are not permitted. Chains are required on all vehicles over 10,000 gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), including large passenger trucks and SUVs over 10,000 GVWR.

Person putting chains on car tire Tire chains required. This is where it gets tricky. Vehicles with 4WD and AWD are exempt when all wheels are engaged. However, those vehicles still must carry chains "for at least one set of drive tires." So, even if the chains aren't mounted, you must have them with you? Apparently so. It's state law: WAC 204-24-050.

If you don't have 4WD or AWD, front-wheel drive vehicles require chains on the front tires, and rear-wheel drive vehicles need chains on the rear tires.

I checked with the Washington State Patrol, which echoes WSDOT's info on this helpful Q&A page. Note the question that says, "I can't use regular cable chains because there's not enough clearance in the wheel well. What other approved traction devices can I use?" A friend at work said this applies, for example, to new Subarus.

Autosock on car tire WSP says automakers certify that AutoSock meets or exceeds Washington's chain requirements. What is AutoSock? It’s a textile tire cover that increases traction, according to its website. Learn more here.

Now, Oregon friends – the law seems much the same for you. The Oregon Department of Transportation's website shows requirements similar to those in Washington, and it also notes “conditional closures” that apply in extreme conditions, such as what occurs in heavy Siskiyou Pass snowfall. (Sometimes, mountain passes may be closed entirely.) ODOT’s chain and traction tire questions include this bottom-line statement that applies even to 4WD and AWD cars: "If chains are required and you don't have them on your vehicle, you cannot drive in the snow zone."

Snowplow clearing snow on Siskiyou summit Aside from conditional closures, Oregon's chain laws exempt 4WD and AWD passenger vehicles weighing less than 6,500 pounds, providing all wheels are engaged, they have approved traction tires, you're not towing another vehicle, and – here it is again – the vehicle is "carrying chains."

Yes, that means you can carry them in the trunk or on your back seat, not mounted to the tires. Read about Oregon’s chain laws here.

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