THEILMAN, MN – B.J.’s serves up burgers and beers just off the intersection of two public roads in Wabasha County, a slice of southeastern Minnesota where steep valleys frame the Zumbro River. It’s ideal terrain for off-roading.
And four-wheelers can hit the pavement, too, ever since Wabasha County expanded ATV access last year to county roads.
“It brings in people,” said Mark Jensen, B.J.’s owner. “A couple of times this year, the whole parking lot was full of four-wheelers.”
No surface is more dangerous for ATVs than pavement, many road safety authorities say. But across the country, more local and state governments are allowing all-terrain vehicles to be driven on paved roads.
The ATV industry opposes driving off-road vehicles on public roadways, cautioning that paved surfaces hamper the machines’ handling ability and can cause operators to lose control and crash. Several ATV manufacturers include warnings in their manuals about collisions with other vehicles on public roads. Honda goes so far as to advise riders approaching a paved road to “get off and walk your ATV across.”
“It’s unbelievable,” said Rachel Weintraub, senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “It is rare for consumer groups, doctors and the ATV industry to be on the same side of this issue, yet there is this incredibly pervasive trend. … All evidence points to [road riding] being a really bad idea.”
Nationally, 1,700 people died in ATV accidents on public roads from 2007 to 2011, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The most recent federal data show that 47 percent of all fatal ATV accidents occurred on public roads. In some states, that tally reached 60 percent, studies say.
In Minnesota, at least 85 ATV riders have died on public roads over the past decade, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state accident reports. In several crashes, investigators blamed excessive speed. Many off-road vehicles can top 60 miles per hour.
Most of the 34 states that approved ATVs on public roads allow counties and other local governments to decide which roads – if any – can be open for ATVs. Over the past 18 months, three Minnesota counties have approved ATVs on at least some local roads, bringing the total to 16.
Proponents for more open ATV access say the risks have been overstated. In Koochiching and Cook counties in northern Minnesota, for example, sheriffs say they haven’t seen any evidence that ATVs have become a hazard since they were allowed on county roads in 2009.
“I was pleasantly surprised that we have had very few accidents,” said Cook County Sheriff Leif Lunde, who was worried about safety when road access was approved.
From 2003 to 2013, 13 children have been killed while riding ATVs on public roads in Minnesota. In 150 accidents reviewed by the Star Tribune, 40 percent of the riders were younger than 16 and driving on public roads. In most cases, the children were on ATVs designed for adults — a common practice that has been connected to almost 1,200 U.S. deaths over the past decade.
A child riding down a road on an adult-sized ATV embodies the industry’s biggest safety concerns, said Tim Buche, president of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an ATV trade group.
“If we could change two things, it would be youth on adult machines and ATVs on roads.”
Call for open roads
Many Minnesota roads are already open to off-road vehicles.
The state is one of eight that permits “expansive” ATV riding on state-controlled roads, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The others are North Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Montana, Arizona and Idaho. South Dakota goes so far as to allow ATVs on federal highways.
Local businesses often encourage ATV road access, hoping economic benefits will follow. ATV enthusiasts and rider groups push for road use because it can be easier to access ATV trails without hauling the machines by car or truck. In counties with few public trails, local roads can simply offer another place to ride.
In Wabasha County, the push for ATVs on roads started at Scooter’s Bar and Grill in Zumbro Falls. The owners, Scott and Gayle Deobald, are both big fans of off-road vehicles and thought opening roads to ATVs would be good for businesses.
“People were thinking it was going to be open season on town streets,” Scott Deobald said. “We haven’t had anybody ripping up the town.”
Sheriff Rodney Bartsh supported the ATV measure from the beginning, saying it stirred little opposition. “The machines were being driven out there anyway, and we are just making them legal,” he said.
County Commissioner Don Springer, who pushed for the road-riding ordinance, said he had hoped for more of an economic boost. But he notes, “it’s certainly made it easier for our residents to traverse the roads and use their ATVs to do it.”
The problem, road safety officials say, is that car and truck drivers can have a hard time seeing ATVs, which usually don’t have turn signals or rearview mirrors.
“Traffic isn’t used to ATVs,” said Dietrich Flesch, Wabasha County’s chief road superintendent who opposed opening the county’s road to ATVs. And the machines won’t fare well in accidents, he said. “I don’t believe they meet any crash standards a car would meet.”
Not built for pavement
All-terrain vehicles are more prone to skid or flip during turns than automobiles or trucks. They have a high center of gravity, short wheel base and no rear differential, which means their wheels all rotate at the same speed while turning, unlike a car or truck.
“If you turn the vehicle at a high rate of speed, that tire is going to collapse,” said Mike Hammer, who until recently was the top ATV administrator for Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates off-road vehicles. “They are not designed for making turns on hard surfaces at basically any speed.”
Gravel roads are not necessarily safer than paved roads, either, and many ATV crashes occur on unpaved public roads.
Some off-road drivers say a safer vehicle is the side-by-side model that seats at least two people and has a steering wheel and pedals, instead of handlebars and hand controls like ATVs. But side-by-side manufacturers, most of which make ATVs, warn that those vehicles are dangerous on paved roads, too.
Minnesota — by state law — has allowed most side-by-sides on county roads since 2007.
Off-road vehicle makers put stickers on their products warning riders to stay off paved roads. Those warnings are routinely ignored.
“We don’t pay any attention to them,” said Jim Adams, a veteran off-road vehicle rider from Zumbro Falls. “I never feel unsafe when we are going out on a road.”
His buddy Tom Kane of Millville said the warning labels are just a way for manufacturers “to cover their butts.”
Kane and Adams talked outside of Scooters Bar while preparing for a Sunday ride. They would be part of a caravan of five side-by-sides motoring across Wabasha County, passing freshly harvested cornfields and mostly leafless hardwood stands.
“I believe our county’s citizens will use common sense,” Sheriff Bartsh said. “I don’t think they will be out there hot rodding.”
“The pressure is increasing all the time”
As ATVs have increasingly taken to the road, they have collided with everything from semitrailer trucks to deer.
Three months ago, four 14-year-old boys were heading east on a rural paved road in southeastern Iowa. They were riding a John Deere Gator 825i, an off-road vehicle that seats two. A Chevrolet pickup going south on another paved road ran a stop sign and crashed into the boys.
Three of the teenagers died at the scene; the fourth died in a hospital shortly after.
“The loss to those parents is mind-boggling,” said David Downing, manager of Iowa’s off-road vehicle program.
The driver of the truck admitted he was driving too fast, and Dubuque County law enforcement believes he was intoxicated, court records show. The accident is under investigation, and no charges have been filed.
But the teenager driving the ATV was violating the law, Downing said, because he didn’t have a valid driver’s license.
The problem isn’t the machines, but how they are ridden, Downing said. “People who operate them illegally or stupidly will get hurt.”
Iowa has experienced a big jump in road ATV usage in the past three years after the Legislature essentially lowered counties’ liabilities for crashes. At least 10 counties have permitted ATVs on roads, and Downing said he expects that number to triple over the next year.
In Wisconsin, roughly half of the state’s counties allow some road access to ATVs.
“We have seen an explosion of local governments open their roads to ATVs, which really makes me nervous,” said Gary Eddy, ATV administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
At first, Wisconsin counties primarily opened roads that connected trails, Eddy said. A few Minnesota counties have done the same. But more often, counties in both states are expanding ATV access to roads.
“It has nothing to do with tourism or trails,” he said. “It’s simply counties using it as an alternative form of transportation.”
Northern Minnesota’s Aitkin County has stuck to allowing ATVs only on roads that connect trails. But in a place where 90 percent of households own ATVs — more than any other Minnesota county — demand is rising to open more roads.
“The pressure is increasing all the time,” said John Welle, Aitkin County’s chief engineer. “It’s something that isn’t going to go away.”