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ATVs on the Road: A Legalized Risk

May 15, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

An encouraging decrease in deaths and injuries has been documented by traffic crash statistics in recent years. But, strangely, these reports do not include significant numbers of casualties involving a kind of motorized vehicle not designed for roadways but routinely driven on them, with the blessing of laws in Minnesota and most other states.

All-terrain vehicle accidents have killed 315 Minnesotans and injured more than 5,800 more over the past three decades. Recent tracking shows that well over half of this mayhem occurs on county, city and rural township roads, where manufacturers, government agencies and safety advocates all warn that ATVs are unsafe.

In the past month alone, a 16-year-old Wadena County girl and a 21-year-old Goodhue County man died when their ATVs rolled over while being driven on roads, according to state Department of Natural Resources reports. Neither victim had taken ATV safety training widely offered by the DNR and required by state law for operators born since 1987. But their choices of where to ride were probably fully legal in a state that gives local governments power to allow ATVs on their own roads.

"Unfortunately, this dangerous riding practice is increasingly being encouraged by the 35 states that allow ATVs to be legally operated on public roads," the Consumer Federation of America states in an alarming new report. "Consumers are told by manufacturers, the federal government, consumer and public health and safety groups and the ATV trade association that riding ATVs on roads is dangerous, but the majority of states are sending a very different, contradictory and dangerous message by legalizing ATV use on roads."

ATVs' high center of gravity, narrow wheelbase and knobby low-pressure tires are all unsuitable for on-road operation, making them prone to rollovers or loss of control at roadway speeds, CFA reports. More than half of fatal single-ATV accidents on roads involve rollovers, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reported in December.

The Insurance Institute also reported that nearly two-thirds of U.S. ATV deaths documented by the Consumer Product Safety Commission through 2007 occured on roads, and that the share of on-road deaths was increasing. Minnesota DNR reports that have specified the locations of ATV fatalities since 2006 placed 86 out of 142 on roads, just over 60 percent.

Minnesota-based Polaris Industries, a major maker of ATVs, places this warning on its Sportsman 570 model: "Operating an ATV on paved surfaces (including sidewalks, paths, parking lots and driveways) may adversely affect the handling of an ATV and could result in loss of control and accident or rollover. Avoid operating the ATV on pavement. ATV tires are designed for off-road use. If it's unavoidable, travel slowly and avoid sudden turns or stops ... Never operate the ATV on any public street, road or highway, including dirt and gravel roads."

Other manufacturers and the ATV trade association, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, make similar warnings, saying the only exception to the off-road rule should be to cross a motorway. Honda even directs users to "get off and walk your ATV across." Because of ATVs' low profiles, Honda adds, "drivers of street vehicles may have difficulty seeing and avoiding you, which could lead to a collision."

The SVIA trade association also offers model state legislation to prohibit operation of ATVs "on any public street, road or highway except for purposes of crossing." The group also has lobbied  against legalization of ATVs on roadways, which four states enacted last year.

In all nationwide, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has counted 12,391 ATV deaths from 1982 through 2012 and more than 100,000 injuries serious enough for emergency room treatment every year since 2001. As of 2012, it estimated that 10.7 million four-wheel ATVs are in use. Manufacture of even more dangerous three-wheelers was outlawed in 1987, but some are still in use.

The Minnesota DNR reported 260,696 ATVs registered for public and recreational use in 2010, along with another 81,171 for private and agricultural use. Public registrations began declining from a 2008 peak due to the Great Recession. Nationwide sales of the machines decreased from 752,000 in 2007 to 289,000 in 2012.

The Consumer Federation recommends that states enact "bright-line laws prohibiting ATV use on all roadways, including the shoulder or any other part of the right of way ... Further, state laws should not permit local jurisdictions to have authority to pass laws about ATV access. Local control of ATV access leads to rider confusion as to what is allowed where, to problems with enforcement of laws and to increased operation on roads." Failing changes in state laws, the federation urges local authorities to ban ATVs on their roadways.

ATVs occupy an odd corner of the transportation continuum, regulated by neither state nor federal highway traffic authorities. They are assumed to be off-road vehicles, but their use on roadways is endemic in Greater Minnesota. On the road, young drivers especially find it difficult to resist the temptation to push them to risky speeds, too often with tragic results.

This is a problem that hasn't gotten much attention in Minnesota or elsewhere. The few states that outlaw on-road ATV operation are concentrated in the Deep South and the East. Minnesota policymakers should take a hard look at it as soon as possible.

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  • david s. says:

    May 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    What isn’t risky? Merely because someone might get hurt is not a good reason for the state to ban something else. I can legally ride a lawn tractor down the street and that’s not designed for on road use either.

  • Dyna says:

    May 19, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Conrad, sounds like you’ve become a shill for the auto industry. If you visited our small towns, you’d find grandmas and grandpas harmlessly using ATVs as around town runabouts, etc.. I suppose your next move will be to outlaw motorcycles…

    • Conrad deFiebre says:

      May 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm

      If I’m a shill for the auto industry, so are all the ATV manufacturers who advise against riding their products on pavement. Motorcycles, at least, are designed for the roads.

      • Dyna says:

        May 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm

        That’s just CYA language that there lawyers wrote… Have you noticed that law enforcement is buying these “dangerous” vehicles and using them on the streets? In the same sort of CYA, Polaris’ lawyers will tell you not to put a sidecar on their Victory motorcycles, while they pay thousands to put a sidecar on them for “product placement” in TV shows like “Mythbusters”.