Driving in the snowy Sierras? Better put chains on the tires

Leo Carrillo stood in the snow on the freeway, amid subfreezing temperatures on Thursday, his fingers icy despite heavy mitts.

He was telling drivers what they didn't want to hear:

Get off the road and put chains on your tires.

Carrillo's job is chain control.

"I love it," he said with unforced enthusiasm.

It's not that he likes delivering bad news. Carrillo said he likes standing in a beautiful place, talking to people.

But when road conditions are bad, as they have been this week in the Sierra Nevada, his three-man crew parks a camper in the middle of Interstate 80 to screen every vehicle that rolls by.

"Four-wheel drive?" he asked into a car that slowed for chain control. "OK. You guys be safe."

If a vehicle has four-wheel or all-wheel drive it can pass, though drivers are supposed to carry chains.

What many drivers don't carry is common sense.

"See that? That there is a liar," Carrillo said after a van driver tried to tell him the vehicle had four-wheel drive.

This is his third winter on chain control, so Carrillo can spot them.

He sent the van off the road for chains. He noted the vehicle had Illinois license plates. Out-of-staters don't seem to like our mountain-road controls, Carrillo said.

Another out-of-state driver approached Carrillo after a spinout had shut down the freeway.

"Why chains?"

"He's from New York," said Carrillo, of Marysville. "He says Californians are . . . " and then he used the first two letters of a word insinuating weakness that Carrillo was too polite to say.

Carrillo's boss had an explanation for all those drivers who think they know how to drive in snow.

"Our snow is a lot denser than snow in the Midwest on to the East," said Bryan Carlson, Caltrans maintenance area superintendent. "Our snow is a lot more moist."

That means it more quickly turns to slush and packs into an icy surface.