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WA Law, tips for driving when towing a trailer in snow, ice


When “chains required” is displayed, the signs mean what they say in Washington State and will help you better navigate snowy and icy roads while towing a trailer.

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Question: What are the rules for towing a trailer over the pass when there is snow or ice on the roads? And beyond the rules, what advice can you give? I suspect the real concern is with trailers on ice as they may not want to follow the tow vehicle.

Reply: I just checked the mountain pass conditions on the DOT website, and now is a good time to talk about it. Before I get to the rules, I have a question for anyone about to tow a trailer over a pass with winter conditions: do you really have to take this trip now?

If you answered “yes” you will need chains, and what you need to do depends on the combined weight of your tow vehicle and trailer. If you weigh less than 10,000 pounds, you are following the usual chain requirements. When “chains required” is displayed, operators towing a trailer must chain their tow vehicle, but chains are not required on the trailer. If you are driving a four-wheel drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle, you don’t have to chain, but you must have chains in your vehicle.

Vehicles or combinations over 10,000 pounds gross weight rating (GVWR) have their own set of rules. You might think that beyond 10,000 pounds we’re only dealing with utility vehicles, but it’s not hard to exceed that weight with a full-size pickup and a large RV. Even a single pickup can do it.

If you drive a van with a GVWR over 10,000, these rules also apply to you. When “Chains Required” is displayed, all vehicles, including all-wheel drive, must chain and, if you are towing a trailer, this includes at least one trailer tire. You must carry two spare chains and plastic chains are not allowed. You must also take tire chains with you between November 1 and April 1 if you are driving on any of the twelve road passes listed in the Washington Administrative Code (and also available on the DOT website).

These are the rules, but there is so much more to safe winter driving than having tire chains. Here are some key tips for winter driving:

Check the road conditions before setting off;

drive more slowly;

leave more space between vehicles;

plan more in advance to quit;

and have an emergency kit on board.

I’m sure you can think of more.

All of this is even more important when towing a trailer, and there are more issues involved. Fishtail and slipping are major concerns; to handle this properly, you need properly set trailer brakes and experience in knowing how to react to icy road conditions. Setting up the brakes on your trailer is a project beyond the scope of this article. Just be aware that if you don’t do it right, you could end up with your trailer overtaking you while it’s still hooked up to your tow vehicle. In case anyone is wondering, that’s bad.

I remember the first good snow after getting my driver’s license. I took my car to a large empty parking lot and discovered, in a low-stakes environment, what it felt like to lose control in bad weather. You might not try the same with a truck and a trailer, but the idea behind it is valid. You don’t want your first experience with your trailer tires loosening on ice to be on a road where not doing it right has dire consequences.

It’s catch-22, isn’t it? You don’t want to tow in snow and ice without experience, but you will only get experience by towing in snow and ice. I can’t fix this, so here’s the advice I took from drivers experienced in towing trailers: keep it parked until the roads are clear.

Doug Dahl, Head of Communications for Target Zero, answers questions about traffic laws, safe driving habits and general law enforcement practices every Monday.

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