Are traction laws enforced in the Cottonwood Canyons? It’s complicated.

Crashes dropped dramatically during a record season last year. Agencies have varying explanations.

The white Toyota minivan rocked forward. Its front wheels spun furiously. From behind, a good Samaritan pushed with all his might.

And yet, the van didn’t budge from its parking spot within Alta Ski Area’s flat Wildcat lot.

Earlier in the day, a Camaro sans snow tires slipped and slid its way down Little Cottonwood Canyon, much to the consternation of those around it. Other vehicles, and drivers, ill-equipped to handle an afternoon storm that settled over the Wasatch Front either slid into snow banks or crept down at a snail’s pace, stalling traffic at the top of the canyon for an hour or more.

“A flashing light sign literally does nothing,” one person posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “If @UDOTcottonwoods thinks this is ‘enforcing’ a law, they are crazy.”

In 2018, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) adopted a traction rule meant to keep cars unfit to handle snowy mountain roads out of places like the Cottonwood Canyons. Yet both adherence to and enforcement of the law has been spotty. Hundreds of accidents occur each year. Plus, most skiers can recount at least one time they’ve been stuck in one of the canyons for hours because a car or bus slid off the road or into another lane.

Can anything be done to reduce slide outs and the traffic delays they engender?

State lawmakers are making a run at remedying the issue with cash. HB 488, passed by the Legislature this session, redirects 2% of the state’s Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Investment Fund toward contracts with local governments to enforce public safety laws related to the canyons — such as those related to traction. The bill was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday.

By its own admission, the agency responsible for enforcing the traction law — the Unified Police Department (UPD) — rarely issues traction-related citations. The reasons behind that are varied, yet they all tie back to maintaining public safety and order, according to Sgt. Mike Hill, a UPD canyons supervisor. Hill indicated that throwing money at the issue could be akin to the minivan spinning its tires.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have more manpower,” he said. “But even if I had 100 officers, I think us having a checkpoint at the mouth of the canyon would have such negative consequences for the people in the valley that I think people would be so mad at me that I think they would be screaming at me to stop doing that. Probably on the very first day, actually.”

Don’t tread on me

A few misconceptions surround Utah’s traction law.

The first is that it is a law at all. Though violators can be issued citations, it’s merely an administrative rule enacted by UDOT and administered in the Cottonwood Canyons — the only route to four of Utah’s most popular ski areas: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude — by UPD. It applies to numerous roadways throughout the state.

The second is that two-wheel-drive vehicles automatically violate the rule. If equipped with “3 peak mountain snowflake” (3PMSF) tires with at least 2/32nds-inch tread on all four wheels, they are free to roam State Route 190, aka Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, and State Route 210, aka Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, in almost any conditions. They also have free range if equipped with a traction device, such as chains, cables or snow socks.

Meanwhile, four-wheel and all-wheel-drive vehicles meet traction requirements if they are fitted with 3PMSF or mud-and-snow tires with acceptable tread. (Unlike all-weather tires, 3PMSF tires stay pliable in freezing conditions, allowing them to better grip the road).

UDOT offers a free sticker program for the canyons wherein a vehicle’s traction can be checked at a participating tire shop. If it meets meeting the traction law (except with 5/32nds tread), the car receives a verification sticker. Both UDOT and the UPD said the stickers are valuable but not mandatory and serve mostly as a way for drivers to patrol themselves.

The traction law is triggered when ice, snow or factors like low visibility make it so “vehicles can no longer operate normally on the road conditions,” said Jake Brown, a UDOT maintenance supervisor in the canyons. UDOT supervisors like Brown are charged with making the call, which ignites flashing lights on traction signs on both ends of the canyon and triggers alerts on UDOT’s social media channels.

Of course, weather can change. Brown warned that even if the roads are clear going up the canyon, vehicles must be prepared to comply with the traction law coming down if a storm moves in.

“Traction law isn’t just an uphill law,” he said. “It’s a downhill law also.”

Yet that’s when many cars ill-equipped for the snow end up in the canyons. Spencer Riehl, an avid Solitude skier and math teacher at West Hills Middle School, counts himself among those exasperated with UDOT for not preemptively enacting the traction law when a storm is in the forecast. Or for the entire winter, for that matter.

“If it were me, I’d mandate 3-peak mountain snowflake tires on all cars entering the canyons from October to March/April,” he wrote in an email. “That way the police can drive up and ticket everyone without the right tires, regardless of conditions.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A motorist drives past Snowbird resort on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.

Snow tires are expensive, though, and Riehl acknowledges that requiring them could be an unfair economic barrier to people accessing their public lands. Plus, the traction rule applies to all roads, not just the canyons, Brown said, and a snow-tire mandate would be hard to enforce statewide.

Meanwhile, enacting the traction law seasonally or preemptively would create a different category of headache, Brown said. Cars with chains can only drive about 5-10 mph max, he noted, which would clog traffic on clear days. That’s not to mention the damage they can inflict on a dry road.

Additionally, Brown said, the traction law loses its potency if it is always in effect.

“It’s kind of like crying wolf,” he said. “If we have the flashing lights on all the time, and we tell people that they have to chain up, or they don’t chain up because it’s dry roads, then when we really need them to chain up, are they going to chain up?”

When the flashing lights do come on, however, enforcement is up to UPD. And that’s where things get complicated.

Enforcement challenges

Five officers. That’s what UPD has available to patrol Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, as well as Millcreek Canyon, Emigration Canyon, East Canyon and Lamb’s Canyon on any given day. Pulling four of them aside to check tires for traction law compliance at the base of the Cottonwood canyons just isn’t practical, Hill said.

For one, a single slide out up the road would force them to abandon the operation, he said. Plus, even a 90-second check per car would create delays neither skiers nor residents of adjacent neighborhoods would find palatable.

Roadside checks face similar setbacks due to both canyons being just two-lane roads. If officers see a car struggling to make it up the mountain, Hill said they’ll typically just turn it around. He said it’s too dangerous for both officers and drivers and would bog down traffic too much to issue a citation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic at a standstill in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023.

“Sometimes enforcement takes a little bit of a back seat to efficiency,” Hill explained, “because we’re trying to have the least amount of impact on the public as possible.”

As a result, cars without proper traction slip, often literally, through the cracks. When they do, they can cause accidents at worst and vexation at best.

“People are really frustrated, and we actually share that frustration,” Hill said, noting the canyons see more visitors each year than Yellowstone National Park. “When you’re talking about two roads that have one way in and one way out, it just puts a real strain. One little thing goes wrong, and then you’ve got a big problem.”

The Tribune requested information from Utah Highway Patrol about the number of accidents that occurred each month in 2022 and 2023.

Crashes increase significantly during the winter months, as one might expect. But oddly, the number of crashes in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon dropped dramatically last year, when Utah experienced record-setting snowfall.

One explanation offered by Brown is that years of messaging about when and how to comply with the traction law is finally sinking in. UPD’s Hill had a different take. He speculated the drop could be a result of the nearly 50 times extreme snow or avalanche danger closed one of the canyon roads that season.

If people aren’t driving on the roads, he reasoned, they can’t slide off them.

More transit?

State Senator Nate Blouin believes Hill might be on to something.

An avid backcountry skier who has gotten stuck in the canyons because of a crash on multiple occasions, he said getting more people to take the ski bus or shuttle service to the resorts could be key to a solution. If taking public transportation is easier than driving, he said, people whose tires or winter driving experience are lacking may voluntarily remove themselves from the roads.

“We need to incentivize transit. I mean, that’s it,” he said. “We have the bus system that can work, so whether it’s making it cheaper, making it more frequent, providing better parking … that is the big solution.”

Little Cottonwood Canyon is expected to see improved busing and a toll to drive the road as soon as next year. Those solutions are included in Phase 1 of UDOT’s three-phase plan to address traffic congestion in the canyon. The controversial Phase 3, which is not expected to be implemented until 2043 at the earliest, includes building one of the world’s longest gondolas but would discontinue busing.

Hill agreed that more busing is probably the best near-term solution to reducing slide outs.

“The only thing that’s really going to fix it is if we had parking garages and a shuttle service, where it was basically the public just couldn’t drive up the canyon,” he said. “To have weather-equipped shuttles that can move people to the resorts, I think that’s really the only long-term solution. And I know that that’s not going to happen anytime short term.”

Instead, bus service has actually decreased in the last two ski seasons. UTA’s bus service up the Cottonwood canyons has been reduced from service every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes thanks to staffing shortages at the transportation agency. UTA officials say they hope to bring more frequent Ski Bus service back by next winter, but it’s not a certainty.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The ski bus makes its way up the canyon in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

Riehl, the middle school teacher, said he takes the bus for 90% of his trips up the canyons in part so he doesn’t have to worry about dealing with other drivers. But even he said it’s far from an ideal option.

“The bus is almost unusable,” he said. “You can’t ask people to do the alternative thing when the alternative thing just sucks.”

Some private shuttle services like Cottonwood Connect and the one run by Wasatch Backcountry Alliance have cropped up recently, but there’s little incentive to pay to use them when skiers and snowboarders can drive the canyons for free. Meanwhile, according to the bill, the money set aside by state lawmakers can’t be used for solutions like buses, only for enforcement.

So in the short term, it looks like slide outs and the traffic delays they cause will continue to plague the canyons. Fixing the problem is easier sled than done.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.