Concerns raised about on-road implications
A bill that would expand riding opportunities for wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs) and off-road vehicles (ORVs) is awaiting a vote by the state Senate, after passing unanimously in the House in February.
House Bill 1028 would include WATVs – a special class of ORV with safety features such as lights, mirrors and seat belts – in the overall category of ORVs, whether the WATV is registered solely for off-road use or for both on-road and off-road uses.
Proponents of the amendment say that when a law was passed in 2013 to expand riding opportunities for ATV riders, last-minute amendments instead decreased the roads where the vehicles can operate.
Before the 2013 law, ORVs were permitted to operate on any road or highway in the state if authorized by local elected officials. The 2013 law restricted WATVs to roads of 35 miles per hour (mph) or less. Under HB 1028, local governments would still have to decide whether to open roads to the vehicles and conduct an environmental review.
WATVs didn’t even exist until the 2013 law, which was a collaborative effort between ATV rider groups and environmental organizations including Conservation Northwest, according to testimony at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing early this month.
ORV users would benefit by having ordinances standardized statewide, according to the committee staffer who summarized the bill at the hearing. One goal is to enhance self-policing against environmental damage, she said.
HB 1028 contains brief language modifying the types of off-road vehicles subject to local government regulation. It would authorize the legislative body of a rural county to adopt an ordinance allowing WATVs to use any highway within the county, according to the Senate bill report.
Spencer King, president of Okanogan County’s North Central ATV Club, which has more than 250 family members, asked legislators to restore ORV status for WATVs. Okanogan County relies on economic stimulus from motorized recreation, he said. King said he’s traveled at highway speed in other states without incident.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) learned about the bill after it passed unanimously in the House, said Jasmine Minbashian, the group’s executive director. At face value, the bill looks like a minor adjustment to existing law, but MVCC is concerned that it could open roads across the state, including state highways, to ATVs.
MVCC supports targeted legislation that would open short stretches of roads above 35 mph to create looped ATV routes, said Minbashian. “But sweeping legislation that opens all highways isn’t the way to go,” she said.
Riders said that restricting WATVs to 35-mph roads means they can’t ride to roads where they are allowed to operate their WATVs, but instead have to go to one end and then turn around.
“The ORV community has a legitimate concern that WATVs cannot ride on some segments of routes … because a portion of those routes have speed limits greater than 35 mph…. Some towns want the ORV/WATV traffic for economic and recreational reasons. We are sympathetic to this concern,” said MVCC in a letter to the Senate Transportation Committee.
Raising the number of road miles counties can open to WATVs also increases the potential for damage to wetlands, private property and wildlife habitat. “WATVs are, after all, designed and marketed as ‘off-road’ vehicles,” said MVCC in the letter.
The majority of those testifying supported the bill. Only Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, and Joanna Grist, an Olympia-based lobbyist for MVCC, testified against it.
ATV club members said the vehicles allow them to get into the mountains and other scenic areas that would otherwise be inaccessible as they age. Several noted that ATV recreation is an important economic driver in rural counties.
Friedman, who was involved in negotiating the 2013 legislation, said he had deep concerns about process and substance in the current bill. The WATV law gave riders access to many more roads than they had previously, but that access came with a compromise restricting their use to 35-mph roads. As soon as the law passed, some ATV rider groups tried to reverse that compromise, said Friedman.
“So, what all this jargonish language means – that allowed this bill to sneak through the House without anyone seeing it – is that WATVs are quads, all-terrain vehicles. They’re built to run in the backcountry, go virtually anywhere. They’re not intended for highways,” said Friedman.
Quads aren’t designed for paved roads and are unstable at speed, said Grist, testifying on behalf of MVCC. The Consumer Federation of America, ATV manufacturers and trade groups, and insurers warn against using them on paved roads, she said. There have been 45 deaths connected with ORVs in Washington since the 2013 law went into effect, two-thirds on paved roads, she said.
Another speaker at the hearing said WATVs, because they are wider and have lights, mirrors and a horn, are safer than bicycles, which are required only to have a white headlight and rear reflector after dark. Since bicycles travel more slowly, they pose a safety hazard when motorists pass them, she said.
In Okanogan County
The Okanogan County commissioners have opened 530 miles of roads to WATVs, primarily in eastern and northern Okanogan County. The commissioners initially opened all roads 35 mph and below to WATVs, but rescinded the ordinance after a successful lawsuit filed by MVCC and Conservation Northwest. The commissioners went back and analyzed possible environmental impacts before opening specific routes.
There are 300 more miles in the county open to other types of off-road vehicles.
The commissioners will consider suitable roads for WATVs in the Methow Valley next, but there is no set timeline.
ORVs include all-terrain vehicles, certain motorcycles, dune buggies, and certain four-wheel drive vehicles, according to the Senate bill report.
Many people have been perplexed by state laws about ORVs. Four years ago, the state attorney general issued an opinion on laws affecting five types of vehicles, including “nonhighway vehicles,” “off-road vehicles” and “wheeled all-terrain vehicles,” as well as various types of roads.
As of Tuesday (April 16), the bill was on the Senate floor. If it doesn’t get a vote on Wednesday (April 17), it is most likely dead for this Legislative session, according to the Legislative Information Center.
Some Legislative rules allow them to take it out of the “x-file,” although using that process isn’t common.