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OLIVIA, Minn. – Just north of town, a yellow sign along skinny County Road 14 warns drivers to watch for tractors. Soon, vehicles of another sort might share this road — ATVs.
Renville County is weighing whether to join a growing number of Minnesota counties in letting all-terrain vehicles on their roads, bringing recreational riders out of the ditch and onto the shoulder. Such laws have become more common nationwide, worrying safety advocates who argue that ATVs — with their high centers of gravity, narrow wheel bases and low-pressure tires — are poorly suited for pavement.
The number of ATV deaths on roads has increased two times faster than off-road deaths, according to a just-released report from the Consumer Federation of America. The study found that 74 percent of ATV deaths nationwide occurred on paved roads, according to the most recent federal data.
“Any kind of access to these roads is dangerous,” said Michael Best, the report’s co-author.
In Minnesota, 61.5 percent of ATV deaths in 2013 occurred on the road or road rights of way, an area that includes the shoulder and ditch, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. About 31 percent happened on private property. How many deaths on trails? None.
“Roads are designed for cars. They’re not designed for ATVs,” said Capt. Mike Hammer, education program coordinator with the DNR. “Trails are designed for ATVs.”
Renville’s proposal, which has split the County Board, would also allow side-by-side vehicles, mini-trucks and golf carts on paved and gravel county roads, partly to prevent them from eroding ditch bottoms. Those who favor the ordinance say it’s a natural fit for a rural county where ATVs used for farming are already a familiar sight on the shoulder.
“I’ve got constituents who get home from work, go to the river and fish, then eat supper at the river,” said Bob Fox, a county commissioner. “From their house to where they go fishing is less than five minutes.”
Minnesota law already allows larger ATVs — those more than 1,000 pounds — on roadways. While prohibiting smaller ATVs on streets, with exceptions for farmers and others, the law also lets cities and counties make their own rules.
Counties, especially in the state’s far reaches, are doing so “more and more frequently,” said George Radke, president of the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota. Because “these machines were not designed” for road use, his group has never advocated for such ordinances, Radke said. “But we never went against anybody, either.”
Nearly 342,000 ATVs were registered in Minnesota in 2010, up from 152,000 in 2000. Over that time, the rate of accidents per 100,000 drivers has dropped by half, DNR data show. Fatal accidents, too, are down.
Shiny red, green and blue ATVs sit in a perfect row in front of Special Touch Arctic Cat and Ski in Olivia — the only ATV shop in Renville County. Tall, multiperson models, some outfitted with heaters and even cabs, are becoming more popular. But it’s the classic one-seater that’s under debate.
The shop’s owner, Bryan Maurice, said that nine out of 10 of his customers — “a conservative estimate” — are using ATVs for agriculture: checking fields, picking rocks, scooting between farm sites.
So Maurice says he’s not hearing much from customers about the proposal. “They ride them on the road anyway because they’re all farmers,” he said.
Permits, lights called for
The draft ordinance, which the board could vote on later this month, would require riders to have a permit, keep their vehicles on the “extreme right-hand side” of the road and use lights when it’s dark. They must have a driver’s license and be at least 16 years old. The board might also add a speed limit of 40 miles per hour, Fox said.
Such restrictions haven’t satisfied some residents who worry the change might open up the roadways to a surge of teenage ATV riders. “Let’s face it: You’re not real bright when you’re 16,” said Tom Kalahar, who’s lived in the area for 36 years. “I think we’re going to be looking at some tragedies here.”
Kalahar works for the Renville Soil and Water Conservation District and calls ATVs “a very useful tool” for government workers and farmers. “This is not an anti-ATV campaign.” But he points out that manufacturers warn against using ATVs on roads.
“Is this a good legal move for the county? A good public safety move for the county? Will it benefit the majority of residents in the county?” he asked. “The answers are a resounding no, no, no.”
Despite warnings from manufacturers, federal agencies and others, the consumer federation’s report finds that 35 states allow ATVs on some roads under certain conditions. The report’s authors also counted at least 18 cities, counties and states currently trying to expand ATV access.
“There’s a clear, 10-year trend … that shows no signs of abating,” Best said.
Minnesota counties that have opened their roads to ATVs in recent years say it’s worked well.
Roseau County, bordering Canada, passed its ordinance in 2006 allowing ATVs on many highways and roads. Some busy stretches were left off the list, said Brian Ketring, the county’s highway engineer.
“The best thing is that it keeps ATVs out of the low, wet areas,” he said. “We don’t have them driving through the wetlands any longer.”
Before, many ATV riders would drive on the road anyway, after encountering water in ditches, Ketring said. “It just made sense to be on the shoulder.”
In its booklets, the DNR offers tips to ATV operators to prevent rollovers — the leading cause of accidents, data show. Among them: Operate at slow, safe speeds. Don’t carry passengers. Then: “Stay off roads and hard packed surfaces!”
Some ATV riders believe that roads can be safe if the rider follows the other rules. “I hate to say it, but a lot of the deaths and accidents on the roads themselves frequently involve speed and alcohol,” said Radke, president of the statewide group.
Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said the area that includes Grand Marais has not seen a big increase in ATVs or injuries since its ordinance passed in 2010.
“The injuries we’ve had have been unrelated to use on county roads,” Falk said.
When the county first held public hearings on opening roads to ATVs, the room was packed with supporters and critics. In 2013, when the county revisited the ordinance, it passed without fanfare, Falk said.
“Even people who were opponents of it have said, ‘Hey, it’s actually worked out pretty well.’ ”