National coalition urges Sauk County Board to reject ATV road routes

September 19, 2018

A coalition of health, safety, and consumer groups from across the United States has jumped into the debate over off-road vehicle use on Sauk County highways.

In a letter emailed Monday to all 31 members of the Sauk County Board, representatives of 10 organizations urged supervisors to reject any proposal that would increase all-terrain and utility-task vehicle access to public roads.

“I think, unfortunately, the data has documented that on-road use is really problematic,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

The CFA leads a coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to reducing off-road vehicle deaths. It includes professionals from institutions such as the University of Iowa’s ATV Injury Prevention Task Force, Texas Children’s Hospital, and the University of Maryland’s Center for Shock, Trauma and Anesthesiology Research.

Weintraub said the coalition decided to weigh in after learning of an effort to rewrite the county’s existing ATV and UTV ordinance.

Wisconsin law allows local governments to decide whether their streets and highways should be open to off-road vehicles. The Sauk County Board created an ordinance in 2013, and has since approved applications from local rider clubs opening more than 70 miles of its highways.

The board’s Highway and Parks Committee has been working over the last several months to revise the ordinance. A new version that would alter the application process and boost safety requirements is expected to be considered for adoption in October.

Applications for new routes along county highways must be approved by the full board, and that requirement would continue if the revised ordinance is approved. The coalition wants the board to reject all future applications.

The letter says ordinances such as Sauk County’s suggest that using ATVs and UTVs on public roads is safe and responsible, even though data suggests it is not. The letter says 67 percent of Wisconsin’s 125 off-road vehicle deaths from January 2013 to August 2018 occurred on roads, and warns that numbers may rise as more data is gathered.

The letter also says off-road vehicles have low-pressure tires and a high center of gravity — a concern echoed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — and were not designed to be driven on paved roads.

Weintraub said the coalition opposes laws in more than 36 states, including Wisconsin, that grant local governments authority to decide whether their streets and highways should be open to off-road vehicles.

“As more and more states pass these laws giving deference to local entities, it’s further eroding the message that’s literally pasted onto these vehicles that says ‘Do not operate on public roads,’” she said.

Local ATV clubs say it’s too difficult to create off-road routes, and have convinced many towns and villages within the county to open one or more of their roads. The clubs claim allowing street access will generate recreational tourism.

Club representatives also say county highway access is needed to connect the existing network of town roads, and that safety concerns about using ATVs on paved roads are overblown.

Supervisor Dave Riek of Spring Green, who chairs the county’s highway committee, said he believes new ordinance requirements will address some of the safety concerns expressed in the coalition’s letter.

The changes would require riders to be 16 years old and have a valid driver’s license. The new ordinance also would add time restrictions intended to ensure that highway riding takes place in the light of day, and add application review procedures intended to make sure any new routes are safe.

Riek said riders who read the new ordinance will know that safety concerns exist, because the preamble says “Sauk County makes no warranty expressed or implied that the routes, crossings, or trails are safe for the operation of these motorized vehicles.”

The revised ordinance would give a town greater input into whether the county approves an application to open a segment of highway in its jurisdiction.

“I think the big thing here is that we’re giving the townships much more influence over whether we’re going to be opening up routes in their townships or not,” Riek said. “In some of the townships, it’s pretty obvious that the people want to use as many routes as they possibly can.”

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