Manufacturers and safety advocates oppose the trend.
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.