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What to Know About Colorado’s Traction Law and Car Rentals


Planning on a ski trip to the Rockies this winter? Colorado’s traction law requires vehicles to be equipped for the worst mountainous road conditions. But most car rental companies can’t guarantee in advance that customers will receive a vehicle with four- or all-wheel drive. This may put some renters between a rock and a hard place.

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What Does Colorado’s Traction Law Say?

Colorado lawmakers recently updated the requirements for passenger vehicles using state highways during winter months. Now every vehicle traveling on state highways must have adequate tire tread and traction-control devices during snow events.

During the winter season, the new traction law (a.k.a. Code 15) requires motorists to have 4WD/AWD vehicles. Alternatively, drivers must have either snow tires or tires with the mud/snow (M+S) designation when driving on certain highways. When in effect, the law sets the required minimum tire tread at 3/16 inch on both snowy and dry roads.

Which Parts of Colorado are Most Affected?

One route impacted by this law is Interstate 70. This route cuts through Summit County between the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass. Motorists caught driving inadequate vehicles could be fined a minimum of $130. Worse yet, if the vehicle is blocking the road, the fine jumps to $650.

How to Make Sure Your Rental Car is Compliant

It’s difficult to reserve a compliant vehicle through a rental car company in advance. If you peruse the website of your favorite brand, there is typically not a search option for 4WD vehicles.

Many SUVs and pickup trucks (typically the larger vehicle classes) come with AWD or 4WD, and you’re covered if your vehicle has it. But when we called the rental car agencies at Denver International Airport, none could guarantee the availability of a vehicle with four- or all-wheel drive.

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In that situation, installing chains would bring you in compliance with the law, but rental car companies generally discourage them. The rule stems from fear that chains can damage the vehicles. Also, rental car companies know that many people don’t know how to properly install tire chains.

However, there is a notable exception. Rental car companies will allow snow chains or traction devices during Code 15 and Code 16 advisories. Code 15 requires motorists to have either a 4WD vehicle or snow tires or tires with the mud/snow (M/S) designation. Also, tires must have a minimum one-eighth-inch tread. Code 16 requires every vehicle on the roadway to have chains or an alternative traction device.

In the fine print, you will find language about the use of chains being prohibited “except where required by law.” Still, if you are contemplating using chains on your rental car, you should definitely look over your rental agreement and make sure that disclaimer is included.

At AutoSlash, we can help you search for SUVs and trucks in areas with winter weather—but be prepared to pay more. During snow storms and high-demand holidays, we will often see these vehicles renting for more than $300 per day.

Concerned about securing an AWD or 4WD vehicle? Follow our tips below to maximize your chances of getting one.

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