Preparation is key for winter storm driving

Tire chains, an afterthought most of the year, take center stage on days like these.

Motorists planning to travel into or out of the Rogue Valley frequently will find chains are required as they drive over the Siskiyou Summit or crossing Sexton Summit.

"The people scrambling to get chains right now are the ones who need to find a professional that can help them at a tire center or full-service parts store rather than just going to Wal-Mart and grabbing a chain set off the shelf," said Tim Boyd, the manager of Baxter Auto Parts in White City.

Southbound motorists on Interstate 5 during bad weather often call on a platoon of chain installers who patrol the chain-up area offering to help — usually for about $20 per axle. The installers are required to have a free permit from the Oregon Department of Transportation to install chains.

Few people understand Siskiyou Summit driving conditions better than Camp Kaye of Ashland, who has braved snow and ice storms to install chains for 30 years.

"One of the biggest problems we run into is that people don't find out they have the wrong-sized chains until they are already out on freeway, traveling at night when most of the places working on chains or selling chains are closed," said the 52-year-old Kaye.

The tendency is for drivers to check their tire size, find a set that matches the size and assume they're good to go.

"There are a lot of variables about tire sizes," he said. "You can take five brand new tires that are the same size off the rack and all five brands will be slightly different."

The variance just begins at the store. A tire with 25,000 miles on it might have a third of its tread left.

"Each chain fits six different tire sizes," Kaye says. "If you're at the edge of the range, it opens up a lot of possibilities for having a chain that doesn't fit."

He suggests putting chains through a dry run before tossing them in the trunk. Read the instructions and slap on the chains in the store parking lot or your driveway.

"If you don't do that, there's no guarantee they're the right ones," he says, "but very few people are going to do that."

Experience tells him that maybe 5 percent of freeway travelers truly are prepared when they hit the Siskiyous.

"Local people who live in this country and drive it all the time are one thing," Kaye said . "This pass is one of the few places in the Northwest where you need chains, and 95 percent of the people traveling I-5 don't realize it."

There is an ingrained freeway mind set, said ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming. "The mentality is that you should be able to go 65 mph all the time, forgetting you are going over a pretty high mountain pass."

Siskiyou Summit, elevation 4,310 feet, is the highest point on Interstate 5.

Snow quality, temperature ranges, road grade and banked turns all affect the driving surface.

"You get on this mountain and temperatures make it slicker than any place else," said Kaye. "The closer to freezing, the slicker things get. In Idaho, where it's zero or less, snow is sticky, even when it's cold. Here, it's warm enough that surface snow melts and then becomes ice."

By the time "Chains Required" signs are flashing, drivers have little recourse than to hope their chains fit and that they can get them installed.

"A dry-run in the driveway is a heck of a lot easier than if you try to learn how to put chains on in a storm with 3 inches of fresh snow (with) traffic whizzing by," said Kaye. "That takes six times as long and it's going to be miserable."

Kaye operates a tree service and falls timber during wildfires. When winter storms approach, he turns his scanner to ODOT's frequency and waits for the snow and ice.

"It might be 1 or 3 in the morning, but when the (chain) requirements come on, you get up and go," he said. "I've spent a massive amount of hours in some horrible conditions."

On a good day he can average five chain-ups an hour for an 18-hour period, Kaye said. "I've also sat by the edge of the road for hours just to get two or three people."

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