Five-year report card on Utah's 'street legal' ATVs

Sep 10, 2013

Back in 2008 the Utah legislature launched a somewhat bold experiment: they created a new class of vehicle – the “street legal” off-highway vehicle. Five years later, the law remains mostly uncontroversial, but has had a big impact on the ATV rental and sales business. Jon Kovash reports from Moab, one of Utah’s ATV capitals.

The 2008 law gave local towns and counties broad discretion to create their own rules for allowing ATVs on streets and highways, and many have obliged. Brigham City, Wellington, Moab, St. George, Hurricane, Carbon County, Piute, Lehi, Price, Alpine and Highland have all adopted local ATV ordinances. In response, the ATV industry has developed a new type of vehicle that has transformed the marketplace.

UTVs available for rent in Moab.
UTVs available for rent in Moab.
Credit Jon Kovash

In Moab, the idea of ATVs on the streets was controversial for years – in 1987 they were banned from paved roads, period. That’s all changed, and with few complaints from conventional motorists, and few injuries, says Grand County Sheriff Steve White.

"You know we did have a little bit of confusion. People would license their ATVs, and then think even with their off-road sticker that they could still ride, whether it was street legal or not. But that seems to have been cleared up, and it seems to actually have worked fairly smooth. There’s been some confusion on what roads they can ride on and haven’t been able to ride on. Unless it’s specifically designated, it’s pretty wide open."

Julie Doricca runs Moab Outback ATV rentals.

"I use my street-legal Razor, which is a UTV, for just about all my driving that I do here in town."

Doricca was one of the first ATV vendors to react to the 2008 law enabling street-legal machines.

"At that time they were just starting to street-legalize ATVs and UTVs. We were the first company in Moab to street-legalize our rentals, as well as installing them for regular customers. It’s amazing how so many people are actually using the ATV street legal kits so that they don’t have to trailer their ATVS and UTVs to the trailhead. It’s really cut down on traffic."

The acronyms can be confusing: An ATV is a traditional all-terrain vehicle, typically with a motorcycle seat, meant to be only driven in the outback. Off-Highway Vehicles, or OHVs, was the term chosen by Utah lawmakers to refer to a new class of vehicles that could be allowed on the streets. And the industry responded with UTVs, “Utility Terrain Vehicles,” which can seat up to four and can be as big as a Mini-Cooper. UTVs have all the bells and whistles for legal street operation, such as headlights, tail and brake lights, mufflers and speedometers. Doricca thinks they have the potential to change the entire ATV market.

ATVs are lined up outside a Moab shop.
ATVs are lined up outside a Moab shop.
Credit Jon Kovash

"You know I see less traffic with trailers going past our shop here lately. I would say probably within the next few years it’s really going to take a cut in who all is trailering their machine and who isn’t. A lot of people now will call for rentals for the fact that they are street legal. They know they don’t have to trailer their UTVs, their ATVs from their home town. They can come to Moab, they can rent them, pick them up, drive right from the shop to the trailhead."

Shon Walter runs the Moab Tourism Center, another vendor of off-road machines.

"I think down the road, you’re going to see smaller and smaller vehicles. Maybe not just UTVs. In a UTV you have a full cage around you, and you’re sitting in a seat with a seat belt. So it’s very much, you know, like a small car, semi-safer than some cars because you do have a cage fully around you."

Walter says Utah residents were the first to warm up to the idea of UTVs, and visitors are slowly catching on.

"You know, it’s been a good experience for us. It’s allowed us to rent out a UTV, and they’re able to go right from our Tourism Center right to the trail. The majority of the people that I see daily are not just from Utah, so they will have a UTV that’s not street legal. So they’re still doing the same trailering type stuff."

In some Utah towns there have been noise complaints. Walter showed us how loud a legal muffler is on one of his UTVs.

One major concern remains: the death and serious injury rates among children. Since 1982, ATV-related deaths have increased ninefold. Among riders under 16 who die, half are 12 or under, and the vast majority were riding machines that were too big for them. Utah ATV crash incidents have increased faster than the national average. In 2010 the University of Utah declared a dramatic increase in severe traumas to head and spine, with children most at risk. Nevertheless, Utah allows 8 year-olds to drive ATVs in the outback, the youngest age limit in the nation. This has insurance implications that discourage vendors like Shon Walter from renting ATVs to children.

Workers maintain all-terrain vehicles at a shop in Moab.
Workers maintain all-terrain vehicles at a shop in Moab.
Credit Jon Kovash

"We don’t want, typically, young people driving our vehicles. But that is a risk that I don’t want to take on, as a rental company."

Scott McFarland, who operates High Point Hummer and ATV in Moab, agrees that insurance has made renting to children problematic.

"If there’s an accident, if I drive in front of you and you crash into me, I crash into you, how are we going to resolve that? And so regardless of what vehicles we’re using to commute, insurance is always an issue."

Although ATV use has tripled in the last decade, the death and injury rate peaked in 2006 and more than a hundred thousand injuries. In 2010 the GAO conducted a sting among ATV dealers, and found that 7 out of 10 were willing to sell an adult machine for use by a child.

This is Jon Kovash, reporting from Moab for UPR News.