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Mountain driving is a completely different experience than cruising through Kansas or traveling down to Texas.  Because of curves, changing altitudes, and driving through areas rich with wildlife, mountain driving in Colorado requires lower speeds, greater caution, and some knowledge regarding putting your car  under greater strain while driving in the mountains.

Winter mountain driving is even more perilous, with snow, ice, and other weather conditions having serious impact on not only the ability to drive, but on visibility. Be sure and check for road closures before heading up to Steamboat Springs for a ski trip, or even prior to traveling across I-70.

Rules of driving in the mountains, especially during the winter require special attention:

  • When vehicles meet on a narrow road which is not wide enough for two vehicles, the vehicle heading downhill must yield the right-of-way for the car heading uphill. Typically this is done by backing up or finding a spot that is wide enough for a car to pass.
  • Use a lower gear to control speeds while going up or down long, steep hills. When an incline is coming up, slow down your car to avoid incessant braking, or “riding” the brake is not necessary.
  • Be prepared for poor visibility. During snow storms and fog, use your low beams. Slow down, and be extra alert for other cars on the road as well as wildlife.
  • Be prepared for steep hills, commercial vehicles that may be driving very slowly or losing control, windy roads, wildlife, and rocks in the roadway.
  • Try and  avoid overheating the engine by not using the air conditioner.
  • Get a winter maintenance check with your auto mechanic in Fort Collins prior to heading out for a winter driving excursion. Drops in temperatures and added moisture to your car will necessitate some changes, and if not addressed by your local auto shop, will create mechanical issues for your car. Fluids need to be checked, as do the lines that carry fluids to their destination. Your battery will be under much more strain in the cold, and needs to be checked, and perhaps replaced. Have your Mechanic check your heating system as well. You don’t want your heater fan to go out while you’re halfway to your destination, and no services are available. Essentially, you want your local auto shop to examine brakes, steering, car battery, suspension, cooling and heating systems, tires and the level of fluids.

Mountain Driving Speed Limits

The speed limit  law for Colorado is “reasonable and prudent,” meaning don’t go faster than is safe for conditions. Unless otherwise posted, speed limits for various mountain areas are:

  • Winding, narrow mountain highways and blind curves: 20 mph
  • Central business districts: 25 mph
  • Residential areas: 30 mph
  • Open mountain highways: 40 mph
  • Rural highways, including two lanes and four-lane divided: 55 mph, and up to 65 mph where posted
  • Rural interstates: 65 mph, and up to 75 mph where posted

Colorado Chain Laws

It is extremely wise to have a good pair of tire chains regardless of your vehicle for winter mountain driving. Your local auto shop can advise you on what make or model is best suited for your vehicle. Roads in the winter often get so out of control with bad weather that the Department of Transportation will require all drivers to put on tire chains to proceed. If you don’t know how to put on tire chains, the time to learn is before you’re actually on the interstate and need to chain up. your auto mechanic in Fort Collins at your local auto shop can teach you how to do this. CDOT has constructed 21 lighted chain stations along the I-70 west corridor. These areas are set aside for motorists to pull over and chain up. Additionally,  drivers can purchase chains and chain-up services from approved vendors when they are present at any one of the 21 chain stations along I-70.

Even if you’re driving in the mountains in an area where chains are not required, if you find your car slipping and losing traction, putting on tire chains will help with driving maneuverability and control under adverse conditions.

Colorado does have specific chain laws for commercial vehicles.These apply to all interstate, federal and state highways. They  include two levels for commercial vehicles:

Chain Law Level 1 requires all single drive axle combinations commercial vehicles to chain up.  All four drive wheels must be chained; cables are not permitted as an alternate traction device. All other commercial vehicles must have snow tires or chains. Level 1 may be implemented any time there is snow covering any part of the traveled portion of pavement on an ascending grade.

Chain Law Level 2 requires all commercial vehicles to chain up. Auto transports must comply to the extent possible without causing damage to hydraulic lines. Buses must chain two drive wheels to comply.  Level 2 may be implemented any time there is snow covering the entire traveled portion of pavement on an ascending grade or when driving conditions dictate this level is necessary to protect safety and minimize closures.

To check on non-commercial vehicles, and see if a chain law is in effect for any particular road in Colorado, visit CDOT here for current conditions.

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