FairWarining Reports

Despite Hazards, Push to Open Public Roads to Off-Road Vehicles in High Gear

Eric Carr/Alamy Stock Photo

More than 14,000 people, including roughly 3,200 children age 15 or younger, have been killed in crashes of all-terrain vehicles since federal safety officials began keeping track in the early 1980s.

Studies have shown (here and here) that over half of the deaths occur on public or private roads — even though ATVs are required to display safety warnings that they are not designed to be operated safely on roads.

Yet in recent years, officials in small towns and rural areas around the country, at the urging of riding enthusiasts, have been approving the use of ATVs — and other off-road machines known as recreational off-highway vehicles, or ROVs — on public roadways. Safety advocates have pushed back, but they are losing more fights than they win.

“This is an uphill battle,” acknowledged Rachel Weintraub, general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America, which has spearheaded efforts to restrict use of off-highway vehicles on paved, dirt and gravel roads.

Off-highway vehicles can reach highway speeds but, with their low-pressure tires and high center of gravity, they are prone to tip over or go out of control on roads.

As FairWarning has reported, while the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates hazardous products and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees traffic safety, neither federal agency has authority over where people operate off-highway vehicles, leaving the issue in state and local hands. At the same time, the safety commission has warned that children under 16 should not drive adult-size ATVs and that the vehicles should not be operated on paved roads.

Undercutting the industry’s official position

Safety advocates have unsuccessfully urged the commission to expand its warning, a position that was bolstered by a 2016 University of Iowa study finding that 42 percent of ATV roadway deaths occur on unpaved surfaces. “ATVs are designed for off-road use only and multiple factors make them at risk for loss of control on both paved and unpaved roads,” study co-author Charles A. Jennissen wrote in a letter to the commission.

The Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a manufacturers trade group, takes the position that “ATVs are designed, manufactured and sold for off-road use only.” But a FairWarning review found that leading manufacturers and dealers sometimes have ​supported groups or made statements that ​undercut the industry’s official position.​ ​

Yamaha, for example, states in its ATV owner’s manuals: “Never operate an ATV on any public street, road or highway, even a dirt or gravel one.” But Yamaha, through a grant program that provided more than $350,000 last year for trail development, maintenance and safety, gave a portion to riders clubs that also fight for opening public roads to off-highway vehicles.

For example, a Yamaha grant of $10,000 went to the Alvwood Squaw Lake ATV Club in Minnesota. Two years earlier, the club persuaded the Itasca County Board to open county roads for ATV use to connect trails.

Yamaha did not respond to requests for comment.

Myron Levin/FairWarning

Polaris, which bills itself as the world leader in an industry that annually sells about 400,000 ATVs and 480,000 ROVs, has also provided trail grants to a handful of rider clubs that have pushed for local governments to open public roadways.

At least one of the firm’s dealers, Premier Polaris in Monroe, Wash., uses its website to lobby for increased street access.

Polaris, based in Medina, Minn., declined an interview request but, in a prepared statement, said, “Our vehicles are designed for off-road use and should not be operated on public roads, unless they have been marked for off-road use by local or state legislation.”

The Consumer Federation of America’s Weintraub said Polaris’ reference to local or state legislation “entirely muddies the water.”

In the first half of 2017, the federation sent 28 letters highlighting the hazards to government bodies considering on-road use. That’s nearly as many as in all of 2015 or all of 2016, a response to the stepped up push at the local level by off-highway enthusiasts.

But this year, at least eight governments — including cities and counties in Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin and the state legislature of Utah — have approved the opening of roads.

The federation knows of only two communities — Wellsville, N.Y., and Fripp Island, S.C. — that decided against opening roadways this year after getting the warning letters.

Injuries More Serious on Roadways

The Specialty Vehicle Institute of America trade group says it also sent letters in the last couple of years opposing more than 60 measures in 23 states.

But pushed by riders and local business interests, more than two-thirds of the states now allow off-highway vehicles on some public roads, or permit local jurisdictions to allow them.

Nearly 100,000 people are hurt annually in ATV crashes, according to federal figures. Researchers have found that roadway injuries tend to be more serious than those on forest trails and other off-road locations. A study published in July by the journal Pediatrics found a more than 10 percent decline in children’s ATV injuries in Pennsylvania in recent years. But the researchers noted that the use of ATVs on paved roads, “especially among adolescents, increases the mortality rate.”

Researchers tend to focus only on ATV injuries because comprehensive statistics are not available for ROVs. However, as FairWarning reported in 2015, hundreds of people have been killed in ROV crashes. Sales of these vehicles have skyrocketed since their introduction in the early 2000s as an alternative to ATVs. Unlike ATVs, which the rider straddles like a motorcycle, ROVs are more Jeep-like in appearance, have bench seating for two or four riders and include safety features such as seat belts.

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About the author

Paul Feldman is a FairWarning staff writer.

3 comments to “Despite Hazards, Push to Open Public Roads to Off-Road Vehicles in High Gear”

  1. Myron Levin

    This comment is from Raphael Grzebieta:

    Oh really Matt!
    And my reply to you is that you don’t go to the emergency trauma wards like Prof. Denning and her colleague Prof. Jennissen are required to do as they try to patch back together the heads, chests, necks, spines, other bones fractured and open wounds caused by an ATV that has rolled over or ejected the rider on a road. They, the US CPSC and the CFA are sick and tired of seeing senseless deaths and serious injuries occurring on roads because manufacturers and dealers just want to sell more ATVs to folks like you, who reject that safety is an essential component of any mobility transport vehicle. Rushing head on into approving opening roads for ATVs is really a dumb thing to do, financially speaking. The Governors of Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin should think twice about this ‘courageous decision’ (https://goo.gl/252EGR), that is going to choke up the hospitals with ATV trauma victims. If you want to travel on a road then use a vehicle that has been designed to be driven on a road, i.e., a car, an SUV, a Pickup or even a motorbike. At least our Politicians in Australia and NZ aren’t so reckless as those in some of your states. ATVs cannot be driven on roads in either Australia or New Zealand and for good reason.

    We call ATVs ‘quad bikes’ in Australia and New Zealand because they can’t travel over ‘All Terrains’. By the way, this is another con by manufacturers and dealers to sell more such vehicles to unsuspecting customers.

    Our most recent study shows that quad bikes (ATVs) are particularly dangerous on hard surfaces such as roads.
    On page 39 and 40 of our report (https://goo.gl/yxZkty) shows that: (1) you are more than 3 times more likely to be injured and more than 4 times likely to be seriously injured when riding on a sealed road than riding on grassland; and (2) you are almost 4 times more likely to be injured and around 2.5 times more likely to be seriously injured when riding at a speed above 22 mph (36 km/h). When combining the two together the risk is high and it is why folks like Rachel Weintraub from CFA and the US CPSC are jumping up and down about it!

    Our research work for quad bikes (ATVs) is available here: http://www.quadbike.unsw.edu.au/ and http://www.tars.unsw.edu.au/research/Current/Quad-Bike_Safety/Performance_Project.html.
    You should read it!

    By the way, what research or contribution to society have you done in this ‘quad bike’ space Matt besides emailing criticisms from your armchair and possibly riding one?

  2. Gerene Denning

    Thank you so much for shining a light on this growing public health and safety concern. I think of it as an invisible epidemic in plain site. The lack of a safety culture around this vehicle continues to take a heavy human and economic toll.

    So many misconceptions surround ATVs and ROVs. One of the biggest is that opening streets and roads to all adult riders will have a positive economic impact that outweighs safety concerns. Evidence supports an economic benefit from dedicated riding trails and parks and from organized riding events. On the other hand, predominately negative impacts (deaths, injuries, noise, trespassing, public property damage) have been shown to result from legalizing general recreational riding on city streets and county roads.

    We get alerts for newspaper articles related to ATVs and ROVs. More and more, the negative effects of these ordinances are being reported and some localities are starting to talk about restricting access again. It is unfortunate communities need to suffer these problems to verify their prediction, but perhaps others will learn from them.

    Finally, ROVs are becoming very concerning! Not only are the majority of fatal crashes happening on the road, the majority of non-fatal crashes are on the road more often than not. Also, report after report show that ROV crashes result in multiple dead or injured, something that may overwhelm the benefits of their greater stability and protective structures (ROPS & seat belts).

    We dream of a day when the industry embraces rather than fights safety and one where safety policies and laws for ATVs and ROVs are as common as those for automobiles. Until then, we appreciate your support and respect for the life and health of these vehicle users.

  3. Matt Anderson

    Paul Feldman Has never ridden and motorcycle, ATV or UTV. This is the ultimate nanny state type of person that is leading the country into the great safety bubble that eventually lead to needing stuffed animal pacifiers for adult age children in colleges.
    No thanks.

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