For years, officials in rural Delaware County, Iowa, fielded requests to open public roads to ATVs, all-terrain vehicles typically seen ridden on sand dunes or in extreme sports competitions. A proposal earlier this year drew crowds so large that board meetings needed to be moved to a larger venue. After weeks of debate, supervisors eventually signed off on an ordinance permitting ATVs on many of the county’s roads.
More than a dozen other local jurisdictions in Iowa and a growing number of places across the country have also opened up roads to ATVs in recent years. But the recreational vehicles are not designed to operate on paved surfaces. More than 300 people a year are killed in ATV-related accidents on public roadways, and the easing of traffic laws has safety advocates concerned that the death toll could rise further.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warns against operating ATVs on public roads, as do national safety groups. ATV manufacturers include warning labels instructing riders never to operate on roadways, and the industry-backed Specialty Vehicle Institute of America calls for the prohibition of ATVs on public roads, except for the purpose of crossing them, in its model legislation.
But at the local level, well-organized ATV clubs have successfully lobbied governments to lift such bans. Some officials also view opening up roads to ATVs as a way of boosting tourism and supporting local economies.
Since the early 1990s, annual ATV-related deaths on public roads have increased nearly threefold. Much of that has to do with the fact that there are a lot more of them; annual ATV sales have more than tripled between 1995 and 2005, according to the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America. After peaking in 2008, fatalities dipped slightly, mirroring the decline that occurred in automobile traffic deaths.
Public roads pose particular safety risks for ATV riders. Research published in the health journal Injury Prevention found that accidents on public roads account for more than 60 percent of all ATV-related deaths, with the majority occurring on paved surfaces. Since 1998, ATV fatalities on roads have increased at more than twice the rate than those killed off-road through 2008.
Despite the risks, Delaware County pushed forward. Drivers in the rural community were already accustomed to sharing the road with farm equipment and horse-drawn buggies, and some ATV riders had been driving on public roads long before the ordinance became effective this month, according to Shirley Helmrichs, chair of the county’s board of supervisors.
Compared to other ATV laws in the state, Delaware County's is stricter. It requires ATVs to be equipped with headlights, taillights, turn signals and a flag at least six feet off the ground.
While such mandates make ATVs more visible to motorists, safety advocates contend they do little to overcome design characteristics that make them unfit for public roads. ATVs feature low-pressure tires with narrow wheelbases, and most models lack rear differential. This improves traction on dirt trails or rocky terrain but causes more skidding on paved surfaces, increasing the likelihood of a rollover.
Charles Jennissen, a University of Iowa professor who researches the issue, says it’s a common misconception that the only major safety concern for ATVs is vehicle traffic. His research suggests only about a third of ATV fatalities on public roads involve other vehicles.
“We know it's happening all the time. Legalizing it will only increase deaths and get children killed as well," said Jennissen.
Many of those injured or killed are children. Federal statistics indicate nearly a third of fatal crash victims are under the age of 18. In Minnesota, kids as young as 12 years old can drive ATVs if they complete safety training and are accompanied by a parent.
Alcohol also plays a prominent role in fatal crashes, with 39 percent of operators involved under the influence, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The vast majority of people killed while riding ATVs also weren't wearing helmets.
Jennissen expressed concern that states and localities letting ATVs on roads could be subject to lawsuits from injured riders, although no cases have been filed so far.
A growing number of states -- currently 36 -- have laws permitting ATVs on some public roadways, according to the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer watchdog. New Mexico became the most recent state paving the way for roadway ATV use earlier this year. Most states that don’t ban ATVs from public streets leave the decision up to local jurisdictions.
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The problem is worst in West Virginia, which has a per capita fatality rate more than double any other state. West Virginia is home to the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trail system, which spans hundreds of miles and attracts ATV enthusiasts from around the country. Public roads connect some segments of the trail system that runs through towns and spans six counties.
Most of the accidents result from riders’ unfamiliarity with either the trail system or their ATVs and occur on public roads, said Terry Ballard, an officer with the state Division of Natural Resources.
“ATVs don’t turn as sharp as other vehicles, so they’ll end up going too fast around a curve and can go off a road,” he said.
Other states with higher ATV fatality rates include Alaska, Idaho and Montana.
Enforcement of ATV bans or regulations can be challenging. In some urban communities, officers aren’t authorized to chase ATV riders. Washington, D.C., police recently released surveillance images and are seeking the public’s help in identifying 245 suspects seen illegally driving ATVs or dirt bikes on city streets.
If there’s good news, it’s that national ATV deaths on roadways fell slightly after reaching a peak in 2008. Total ATV fatality counts for 2015 aren’t yet available, but early estimates suggest an uptick in motor vehicle deaths. Some also expect ATV deaths to rise, a likely scenario given the improving economy and lower fuel prices.
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