When you think of an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, you probably think of it as a buggy designed for rugged off-road use.
If you do, you are right. Increasingly, however, ATVs and similar vehicles are popping up on roadways that are traversed by cars and pickups. And the result, as you may expect, has been occasional conflict – and many questions about where ATVs can legally be driven.
So where can they be driven? Like so many activities in the U.S., it depends on where you live.
The sales of ATVs have skyrocketed since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, sales of ATVs in 2020 increased by a whopping 33.8% over 2019.
With vacations and other plans canceled, apparently a lot of people were looking for new socially distanced forms of recreation, and ATVs caught their attention.
A Headache for Law Enforcement
Unfortunately, however, law enforcement officials across the country found that irresponsible operation of the ATVs also increased.
“They’re going wherever they want,” a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune during the heart of the pandemic last year. “I’ve never had this many issues or complaints.”
The number of ATV deaths in Minnesota last year, 25, was the most ever in the Gopher State. And as the Tribune reported, the ATV death statistics revealed a troubling trend: The majority occurred on roads, not trails, “a factor common in ATV deaths across the country” in 2020.
This year, it seems to have only gotten worse. Whatever the reasons may be, there seem to be a lot of ATVs being operated on public streets and highways where they are not supposed to be.
A Problem in Cities and Small Towns Alike
The worst cases have been in several cities, where large gatherings of ATV and dirt-bike operators have caused disturbances. In Philadelphia, hundreds of ATV and dirt-bike riders have been zooming through neighborhoods en masse, leading the city to crack down.
Ditto in Providence, Rhode Island, where a video shows a throng of drivers brazenly ignoring a red light.
But it’s not just cities. Conflicts have also arisen in smaller towns, although not in quite the same way. That is because some towns see giving ATVs access to public roads and highways as a boost to local economies.
Both states generally prohibit ATVs on public thoroughfares but grant municipalities the right to allow them.
This is generally the case in about half of the states in the U.S. The states generally say no to ATVs on public streets and highways, that is, but leave it to municipalities (and sometimes counties) to set up their own rules.
Making Sense of Widely Varying Laws
So, if you want to know what the law says about ATVs on public roadways, it depends on where you live.
On one end of the spectrum is Utah, which allows the operation of ATVs on any street or highway other than along Interstate Highways 15 and 70 or within Salt Lake County. Then, last year, West Virginia followed suit with passage of a law that allows ATVs and side-by-sides (a two-seater form of ATV) on the state’s thoroughfares.
In both these states, ATVs must meet certain standards to be street legal, requiring owners to invest in various additions (which can be available in kit form). These include windshields, speedometers, mirrors, lights, horns, and seat belts.
In addition, Utah limits ATVs to a maximum speed of 50 m.p.h. no matter what roadway they are on. West Virginia does not limit ATV speeds but does limit the distance they can travel to 20 miles.
On the other end of the spectrum is California, which prohibits their use on any public thoroughfares but provides an exception allowing them to cross public streets or highways at a 90-degree angle.
Between these two ends of the spectrum, about half of the states leave it up to municipalities and counties to make the call, set up their own standards, and post signs and roadway markings indicating where the vehicles are allowed. Some take different approaches. In Washington, for instance, state law says ATVs can be driven on all roadways where the speed limit is 35 m.p.h. or lower, but leaves the adoption up to local counties.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that in every instance where the law grants operation of an ATV on a public roadway, you need to be a licensed motorist at least 18 years of age. You will need to register and insure the vehicle just like cars and pickups. And your state may require inspections.
If you want to take your ATV (or similar off-road vehicle) onto public thoroughfares, check closely with your state’s motor vehicles department and also check what the rules may be in your locale. There are handy state-by-state guides, like this one, to help you find what you’re looking for.
Meanwhile, we would be negligent if we didn’t mention a recent public-service announcement from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC says that no matter what the laws are in your state or locale, you should try to stay off public roads. According to the CPCS, it’s just too dangerous.