LA GRANDE — Getting a grip on winter is sometimes as easy as flipping a switch for Daniel Bolen, an agriculture sciences teacher at Elgin High School who doubles as a substitute school bus driver.
Many of the buses in the Elgin School District's fleet Bolen drives are equipped with automatic chains, ones that are activated with little more than the press of a button on a control panel.
"They work well on packed snow and ice," Bolen said.
Chris Greenlee, the lead technician for Mid Columbia Bus Company’s La Grande station, which has many buses equipped with automatic chains, agreed the devices are a great tool.
"They provide an extra vote of confidence (for bus drivers). If their wheels start spinning they can have traction right away," Greenlee said.
Kathaleen Maley, location manager for Mid Columbia in La Grande, which serves the La Grande, Cove, North Powder, Union, Burnt River and Long Creek school districts, also likes the chains.
"They let you quickly get out of trouble spots," Maley said.
Still, automatic chains are not a silver bullet for addressing all of the challenges school bus drivers face in the winter.
"On soft snow they are not as effective because they get gummed up," Bolen said.
Another drawback is the chains do not work well for long distances because they wear out and will damage the walls of tires, Maley said.
The automatic chains, which local school buses have been using for a number of years, only work at speeds between 5-30 mph and can not be activated when the vehicle is stationary. This makes them ideal for school buses, Greenlee said, because many operate in this speed range.
If not for the automatic chains, local schools bus drivers might sometimes face the possibility of putting on iron chains for an icy stretch and then have to stop and take them off, a long process. The automatic chains, Bolen said, can be a time saver.
The automatic chains Bolen and other school bus drivers use are fixed to the suspension of buses. When the chain system is activated, small rubber chain wheels that run along the inside of the back tires of the bus are lowered. Then as the bus accelerates the chain wheel spins and the chain links are thrown underneath the tires to provide friction. Air brakes provide pressurized air to push the chainwheels to the tires.
Still, while the devices are a big help to drivers, Maley said, "They do not replace iron chains."
She noted when conditions on Interstate 84 are so slick that traction devices such as traditional chains are required by state law, automatic chains do not count as acceptable traction devices. But the automatic chains are valuable when buses encounter packed snow and ice on steep roads.
"They are a huge help when going up hills," Maley said.
Maley said her school buses have automatic chains in them year round and that they are easy to maintain if properly operated.