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What's Driving You Crazy: Should I drive in snow ruts if they are outside the regular lane?

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Posted at 6:17 AM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 10:38:04-05

Justin from Golden writes, “What's driving you crazy? When roads are snowy, it’s common that cleared-out ruts form from enough car tires driving over. When it becomes apparent that the ruts aren’t within the marked lanes on a road — often they’ll exactly split across two lanes — I have to assume that the legal thing for a driver to do is maintain their vehicle within the lane, not within the ruts, even if there might be less traction. Who’s in the right in that situation? The driver who stays in the proper lane, even if more slippery, or the driver who tries to keep better traction by staying in the ruts, even if it splits the lane?”

That is an interesting dilemma, Justin. I have done that exact same thing, especially on neighborhood roads before the plows come through. I took your question to the Golden Police Department and to the Colorado State Patrol. Both departments told me the short answer is that a driver who stays in the area where their marked lanes would be is going to be driving “legally” and have the right of way. The best way to handle the longer answer to your question is to let Sgt. Matt Porter with Golden Police traffic unit answer it in his own words.

"Traction in poor weather conditions may not necessarily be better traveling inside of the traveled or rutted area. The area inside the rut could be icy and provide a frictional value between the roadway and tire surfaces that could cause the tire to slip more than on untraveled snow. This is why reduced speeds need to be followed as it is often unknown where icy areas to lose control may be occurring.

I’m going to tackle the question from the angle of active snow fall conditions (road has not been plowed) and very cold temperatures (as the road is covered). Below are the points I will make when driving in these conditions: If the lane markings are able to be seen, the driver needs to be within the lane of travel. If it’s a multiple lane roadway, Colorado law states you should be in the right-hand lane of travel except to pass. Passing is not recommended in poor weather conditions and travelers should stay as far right as possible.

If the lane markings cannot be seen, follow the below recommendations: Try to drive as far to the right-hand portion of the roadway as possible, without traveling off the road. Often times this will be visible with sidewalks, roadway markers, barriers, etc. Don’t assume the person who traveled before you was traveling within the lane when the tracks were created. If it appears they were over the center line then it is your obligation to re-position yourself within the appropriate lane of travel and as far right as possible.

MORE: Read more traffic issues driving people crazy

The rule of thumb when traveling in poor weather conditions is as follows: You should reduce your speed by 1/3 on wet roads and by 1/2 or more on icy/snow packed roads (i.e., if you would normally be traveling at a speed of 45 mph on dry pavement, then on a wet road you should reduce your speed to 30 mph, and on an icy/snow-packed road you should reduce your speed to 22 mph).

The above guidelines need to be followed to safely maneuver the roadway as stopping distances are going to be increased with slick roads. If they are followed, it won’t matter if the vehicle is traveling in the ruts or on untraveled portions of the roadway.”

Other officers I posed this question told me the likelihood of being pulled over in a situation like this is very, very low, however, they say being the wrong lane would come into play if there was a crash involving another vehicle or pedestrian were fault had to be established. All officers emphasized that driving safely in any type of adverse weather conditions is the most important.

Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.