‘Sock law in effect’ on Vail Pass?
October 9, 2009
VAIL, Colo. – In a boost for truckers who dread that “chain law in effect” sign in winter on Vail Pass, the Colorado Department of Transportation recently approved the use of an easier-to-use replacement.
Known as the “AutoSock for Trucks,” the device is a heavy-duty fabric covering that fits over the truck’s drive wheels just like a sock. Tests have shown it takes only about five minutes to install the AutoSock on four wheels, compared to up to 45 minutes for tire chains.
“We’re thrilled,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents the state’s truckers. “Safety is really the issue here, because the longer drivers are outside their truck, the greater the danger.”
That point has been driven home in the past two winters, when two truck drivers died while putting on chains on Intestate 70 (one from a heart attack; the other was struck by a car).
Trucks trying to make their way up to the Eisenhower Tunnel or over Vail Pass without chains have been notorious over the years for creating traffic jams when they skid out or jacknife. Fulton said truckers have a variety of reasons for not wanting to get out and put on the chains. They might not know how, for starters. Other drivers may be out of shape or older, and putting on chains can be physically demanding, Fulton said.
But fear for their safety was probably the main reason, he said, adding that even increased fines for non-compliance wasn’t going to solve the problem.
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“It doesn’t matter how much the fine is if we can’t provide a safe environment to allow person to chain up and do it safely,” Fulton said. He credits the Department of Transportation with creating new, lighted chain-up stations and a chain-up assistance program for addressing part of the problem. The AutoSock is another component of that, he said.
“When we talk to safety directors and insurance companies, from their point of view, the less time the driver is out of the truck, the better,” he said.
Denver’s McGee Company distributes the AutoSock in Colorado. Interest in the product has been high, especially from the larger fleets, said Greg McGee.
“They see the safety aspect and the time-saving in something you can put on for immediate traction,” McGee said. “It’s also the only product out there that’s compatible with ABS (anti-lock brakes) and traction-control systems.”
Both Fulton and McGee said the AutoSock performs better than chains, working more naturally with the truck’s wheels and also performing better on patches of dry pavement. When chains hit dry road, lots of bad things happen: They tear up the road, the expensive chains start to break off, and the pieces cause flat tires for other vehicles. While the AutoSock isn’t meant to be run for long stretches on dry pavement, it runs more smoothly and cause less damage than chains.
Department of Transportation engineer Bernie Guevara said the agency performed a great many “elaborate tests” to ensure the sock was as effective at providing traction.
“We were pretty impressed,” Guevara said. “It gives drivers another tool and it’s easy to do. It’s also not as hard on the roads.”
McGee said the chain-law requirement is for a truck’s four drive wheels to have them. The cost of a set of four AutoSocks for a typical semi is $300 to $400 – about twice the cost of chains. His company is currently running a deal to purchase four for the price of four, but Fulton said the cost may well come into play in the down economy.
“These fleets already own a lot of chains, so it’ll be a challenge for them,” he said. On the other hand, weighing the cost benefit of the AutoSock versus the chain should make more sense.
Fulton also said the more socks get sold and proven on the road in winter, the more truckers will embrace them.
“There may be some old salty truckers out there who think you’re not a real man unless you’re throwing chains on,” he said. “But when you talk to drivers using them, from their end they very much like the product. I was a skeptic at first – you almost can’t believe this fabric thing can work this well, but it’s very impressive.”