A little dirt never hurt, but there are a few rules

By: 
Mickey Schommer

MARINETTE/OCONTO COUNTIES – For many Wisconsinites, spring weather means riding the ATV/UTV trails and routes in northeastern counties. However, safety must remain a priority when operating these vehicles amidst the excitement of getting back outdoors.

ATV/UTV riders can ride legally on two kinds of paths: trails and routes.

ATV/UTV trails are officially recognized, off-road trails with a dirt, sand or gravel base.

ATV/UTV routes are opened roadways that allow ATV/UTV riders to share the road with other motorists.

“Those roadways can be opened up locally by local ordinance. State statute allows a municipality or a county to open roads or a road inside of their jurisdiction,” said Off-Highway Vehicle Administrator Lt. Warden Jacob Holsclaw.

“Many state roads or highways are not going to be open [for ATV/UTV use]. Those are roads that are maintained by the Wisconsin DOT. There are some exceptions where machines can cross these roads or short stretches of these roads are opened up, but generally, those roads are not open.”

Years ago, off-road trails were the only option for ATV/UTV riders, and the route system was added to connect trails. 

Now, routes have developed a system similar to off-road trails.

Public safety requirements 

Operators must be certified in ATV/UTV safety by completing a class, which can be offered both in-person and online. These classes are required for all riders born after Jan. 1, 1988. Holsclaw explains that ATV/UTV riders should be comfortable and knowledgeable about their vehicles before operating.

“These machines handle differently than trucks and cars. They were designed, you know, for off-road operation. So, when you’re talking about road routes in cities and counties being opened up, a lot of these road routes are on paved roads or hard-packed gravel. These machines, they handle a lot differently because they’re going to have a low-pressure tire for gripping on the service and if somebody’s unfamiliar with the machine and they decide to take a turn too quick or they’re not paying attention or going too fast when they’re approaching a curve, they have a tendency to roll over rather quickly. Especially on a paved surface,” he said.

To operate on public routes, riders must be at least 12 years of age and accompanied by an adult until the operator turns 16 years old.

ATV/UTV riders under 18 years old must have a helmet that is DOT-approved and all passengers must wear a seatbelt, which is provided in ATV/UTVs.

“We see a lot of injuries and fatalities from people (A) not wearing helmets and (B) not wearing seatbelts,” said Holsclaw. Any machine in operation over 15 days must be registered through the Wisconsin DNR.

The most common registration is public use registration, which is valid for two years on both routes and trails. Similar to other vehicles, intoxication while operating is illegal.

“One thing to note – and this is the same way in a car – you can still be arrested for intoxicated operation even if you’re below a .08 because alcohol affects everyone differently,” said Holsclaw.

“Our safety message from the DNR is to wait to drink until you’re done riding for the day.

“Those requirements are probably some of the most important safety parts and then also some of the most common violations we see.”

These regulations help to prevent crashes and other incidents. 

In 2023, the DNR reported 282 crashes, 99 injured passengers and 32 fatal incidents of which 95% of victims were not wearing a helmet. So far in 2024, five fatal crashes have occurred.

In the event of a crash, it is required that operators involved report the incident to law enforcement officials as soon as possible and submit a written report to the DNR within 10 days of the incident.

For more information on ATV/UTV regulations, visit https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/ATV/UTV/Regulations

Marinette County Ordinance Overview

• Designated ATV/UTV routes begin operating on May 1 and end on Dec. 1.

• Operators must observe a maximum speed of 35 mph or the posted speed and remain single-file.

• When operating on a paved surface, ATV/UTV riders must remain on the extreme right side of the roadway.

• All ATV/UTVs must have headlights and taillights illuminated when operating.

• Any ATV/UTV that uses county highway routes must carry the expected minimum insurance.

Oconto County Ordinance Overview

• ATV/UTVs must obey posted speed limits on County Highways.

• When operating on a paved surface, ATV/UTV riders must remain on the extreme right side of the roadway.

• All ATV/UTVs must have headlights and taillights illuminated when operating.

• ATV/UTV riders cannot ride on county highways unless they have proof of approved liability insurance.

• Operators must be 16 years old with a valid driver’s license.

• All ATV/UTVs must display Wisconsin registration or a Nonresident Trail Pass while operating on county highways.

• Operating ATV/UTVs must be equipped with a muffler or noise-suppressing system.

To find other county or municipality ordinances and regulations, search “ATV” on your local government website.

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