Pennsylvania will test new travel restrictions this winter

November 15, 2019

Tyson Fisher


Winter is coming, and that can mean significant highway closures due to inclement weather. Pennsylvania is taking action with new policies that will place travel restrictions on trucks first.

In October, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania released the final draft of its inclement winter weather travel restriction and ban framework. Coordinating state agencies include the Emergency Management Agency, State Police, Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

As needed, PennDOT will coordinate speed restrictions on the interstates.

According to the framework, when speed restrictions are in place for inclement weather, a right-lane-only restriction also will be imposed for commercial vehicles.

Passenger vehicles towing trailers, including enclosed cargo trailers, open cargo trailers, vehicle trailers, recreational vehicle travel trailers and fifth wheel trailers, will also be restricted to the right lane.

That will be the first phase of any potential closures. From there, further restrictions and bans will be placed incrementally using a five-phase approach based on vehicle type:

  1. Unloaded and lightly loaded trucks (one-third of gross vehicle weight rating), passenger vehicles towing trailers, recreational vehicles, buses and motorcycles.
  2. Trucks towing loaded tandem trailers.
  3. All loaded trucks except for those carrying full coverage tire chains for at least two drive wheels or those with approved alternate traction devices.
  4. Every truck regardless of loading or availability of tire chains, i.e., complete truck ban.
  5. All passenger vehicles.

Unless otherwise noted, there are some exemptions for commercial vehicles. However, they are mostly for utility vehicles, emergency vehicles, tow trucks and salt delivery vehicles. Truckers hauling liquid fuels for emergency deliveries also are exempt.

When a travel ban lasts longer than 24 hours, PennDOT will consider additional exemptions. Those will mostly include bulk liquid fuels delivery to support critical infrastructure and the transport of other critical commodities.

Once a travel restriction or ban has been placed, roadway conditions will be evaluated every two to four hours, possibly sooner depending on weather conditions.

According to PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell, the framework is not set in stone.

“It will remain in draft format until we see how the procedures work for this winter weather season,” Campbell told Land Line. “The draft can be updated as necessary if needed as we look at incident statistics and data after each incident.”

Pennsylvania travel restriction timeline

Tire chains

According to the travel restriction framework, trucks must carry tire chains for at least two of the driver wheels. Chains do not need to be installed. However, they must be readily available for installation by the driver to regain traction in instances when the truck is stopped and unable to restart because of loss of traction.

Once tires chains are installed, they must be applied to tires on the opposite ends of the same drive axle. Tire chains are required to:

  • Consist of two circular metal loops, with one on each side of the tire.
  • Be connected by at least nine evenly-spaced chain loops across the tire tread.

Tire cables with high strength steel cross member rollers 0.415 inches or greater in diameter can be used in place of tire chains. However, cables must meet the same two criteria above.

Pennsylvania approves of the following alternative traction devices:

  • Wheel sanders – which must carry enough sand to get the vehicle through any restricted areas.
  • Pneumatically driven chains – which spin under the drive wheels automatically as traction is lost.

Check Land Line’s comprehensive tire chain law roundup for regulations in other states.

Issues with extended travel restrictions and trucks

Pennsylvania’s updated travel restriction framework comes three years after the state implemented the State Highway Closure Framework.

In January 2016, a major winter storm left hundreds of motorists stranded on the turnpike for nearly 24 hours. That incident steered the state to come up with the framework, which addressed extended road closures to reduce the potential life threat to the motoring public trapped on the roadway.

Since then, the state continues to experience long closures that trap motorists for several hours. State agencies concluded from data that if a truck is involved in the initial weather-related incident, reopening the highway becomes “extremely hindered to almost impossible,” according to the latest travel restriction framework.

Now, the state is trying to proactively prevent similar incidents as opposed to a framework that reacted to them.

State agencies have zeroed in on commercial vehicle travel restrictions.

“Data from the preliminary use of commercial vehicle restrictions and bans from 2018 and early 2019 have shown a significant decrease in highway incidents resulting in extended closures on limited-access highways,” state documents explain. “Based on data provided by (state police), one such comparison of similar winter weather incidents from November of 2018 and January of 2019 showed a near 90% decrease in accidents involving commercial vehicles when commercial vehicle restrictions and/or bans were implemented.”

With that in mind, the state will restrict travel on truckers first. However, the state also will consider the following before implementing any travel restrictions or bans:

  • Implemented in a timely, efficient manner.
  • Communicated as early as possible so operators can make alternate plans as necessary.
  • Modified or rescinded in a timely manner to minimize disruption to the flow of commerce, and thus reduce any potential financial impact to the commercial trucking industry, and other stakeholders that rely on over the road commodity transport.

“Appreciating the economic impact of travel restrictions and bans on commercial haulers and transportation companies, every effort will be made to only implement travel restrictions and/or bans when needed, and to keep them in place for the shortest duration possible,” the travel restriction framework states.