ATVs dangerous, deadly on public roads

Relaxed laws let drivers leave off-road trails

All-terrain vehicles have high-speed engines, they’re fun to drive and often are used recreationally to explore off-road trails. The powerful vehicles can also be deadly on public roads, and they’re showing up there more and more, in part because of relaxed state and local laws.

The result: More ATV fatalities occur on public roads than off-road, according to the most recent data from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission.

“ATVs should never be operated on paved or public roads,” warns Kathy Van Kleeck, vice president of government relations for the Specialty Vehicle Industry Association, which represents ATV manufacturers and distributors. “They don’t’ have on-road tires, they don’t have other lighting or turn signal equipment needed for on-highway.”

The trade association has broadcast that message through public safety and awareness campaigns and training sessions. Plus, all ATVs carry warning labels instructing users to never operate ATVs on public roads or paved surfaces, citing possible collision with other vehicles and handling problems.

Still, ATVs are often seen sharing the road with cars and trucks in cities, towns and counties across the country.

A Scripps News’ analysis of the latest CPSC data found 1,243 fatal crashes involving ATVs on public roads in a five-year period from 2009 to 2013. Of those public road fatalities, 852, or 68 percent, occurred on paved public roads. In comparison, there were 999 fatal off-road ATV crashes over the same five-year period.

“There are just too many accidents,” cautions Bob Adler, a commissioner with CPSC, the federal agency tasked with ensuring ATVs are safe. “These things are simply not designed to be ridden on paved and public roads.”

ATVs come in various sizes and styles designed for adults or children. The most popular are the four-wheelers. The vehicles are specifically designed and built for use on off-road terrains such as trails, ATV parks and farms. But, Adler says, they have a high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase that prevents them from being easily controlled on paved roads.

“They're just not maneuverable on paved roads,” Adler said. “They're very prone to flip over.”

Many disagree with federal government and industry warnings.

“ATVs can and have been driven safely on paved roads when driven at a reasonable speed," insists Ken Kyler, a member of the Maryland Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance.

Kyler agrees the vehicles should not be driven on interstates, heavily used state highways or busy cities and downtown areas. But, he says, “if it's on a lightly used road and the vehicle is operated at a relatively low speed, consistent with safety, there is no safety issue.” Kyler said that low speed is 20-25 miles per hour.

Because ATVs are not manufactured for on-road use, they do not qualify as “motor vehicles” and are not regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. That means states have the authority to allow ATVs on their public roads.

According to a report by the Consumer Federation of America, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, 35 states allow ATVs on designated roads, roads as authorized by the authorities having jurisdiction over the road system, limited stretches of roads or on the shoulder of roads. The report also shows that in the past decade, 22 states have enacted laws in varying forms expanding the use of ATVs on public roads, including paved ones.

Over half of the states delegate authority over ATV use on public roads to local county commissioners, town boards and city councils. A review of state laws conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that ATV laws differ greatly from state to state.

“It’s a very sad trend,” Adler stresses. “What we really have to do is talk to the states and municipalities and persuade them that they are moving in a very dangerous and wrong direction.”

In a number of states, ATV drivers are not required to take an ATV safety certification course nor are they required to have a driver’s license. In Wisconsin, drivers can lose their license in a drunken driving violation and still legally hop on an ATV and take it on public roads authorized for ATV use.

For years the trade association representing ATV manufacturers has appealed to state legislators and local communities through safety campaigns, letters and proposed legislative language asking them to prohibit the use of ATVs on public roads and highways.

“I don’t know that legislators and town councils think about the ramifications when they’re looking at ordinances and laws to allow it,” Van Kleeck said.

What many states and towns do consider when passing laws and ordinances legalizing ATVs on public roads are tourism, economic development and appealing to residents who want to use their ATVs to get around town more conveniently.

These discussions are occurring in state capitals and town halls across the country. Recently, in Phillips, Wis., the county transportation committee debated opening additional public county roadways to ATV drivers.

Among those advocating for more ATVs on the road was Dale Tenut, the local ATV club president. When asked why more public roads needed to be opened, he replied, “To make it easier for tourism to get from township or place to place.” He said his association was aware of the safety concerns, but insisted “it would be the same as driving your car down the road. You have to be aware of what you’re doing.”

Don Grande, the Price County, Wis., transportation commissioner disagreed. “Are they willing to jeopardize safety with the chance there will be economic development?” he asked. “It’s not an if, it’s a when. The day will come where we do have to answer to a fatality or near fatality on a county highway with an ATV.”

After weeks of discussions and a public town hearing, the committee voted to open more public roads to ATV drivers and not require a driver’s license as was initially proposed.

“They’re sending a mixed message,” Adler said of lawmakers like those in Wisconsin. “I’d call it bad public policy.”

Adler advises states and municipalities to invest in ATV parks where it’s safe and where the vehicles are designed to be used.

With millions of ATV riders and enthusiast across the country, ATV manufacturers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and safety advocates agree ATV riding is a fun, recreational activity that should only be enjoyed on off-road terrain.

“If we could keep ATVs off public roads and paved roads, we’d be going a long way to solve the safety issue,” Van Kleeck said.

Angela M. Hill (@AngelaMHill) is Scripps National Investigative Producer. Amanda Kost, Scripps National Investigative Reporter, contributed to this report.