St. Louis County may allow ATVs on roads

PHOTO: Arctic Warrior, Flickr CC

PHOTO: Arctic Warrior, Flickr CC

St. Louis County commissioners may allow All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to be operated on county roads with few restrictions as soon as May 24.

John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune reported on the county plan to lift a ban on ATVs on county roads earlier this week. A majority of commissioners appear to support the idea. The county has a website describing the proposed changes and outlining the process.

State law bans ATV use on roads except when local ordinances allow it. Most cities don’t allow ATVs on roads and streets, but different counties have different rules for rural roads.

Having grown up in rural St. Louis County and now living in rural Itasca County, I can attest that it’s not unusual to see ATVs on roads regardless of the legality of the matter. The question is whether this becomes something more mainstream, or remains the clandestine happenings of the back country.

Supporters say this new ordinance will support tourism by encouraging ATV users to connect to trails via established roads. Opponents cite concerns over safety (most ATV fatalities occur on roads). For instance, as written the ATV policy would allow unlicensed 12-year olds or people with suspended licenses to drive ATVs on the road at highway speeds.

I suppose your view of this comes down to your visceral reaction to that possibility.

In the Myers story, Commissioner Steve Nelson said, “Government will never be a substitute for good parenting.”

Commissioner Tom Rukavina argued that the ordinance would help develop an extensive trail system for the county because drivers wouldn’t have to trailer their machines.


Koochiching, Lake and Cook counties all have adopted blanket ordinances that allow ATVs on nearly all county roads. The ordinances allow ATVs on the right side of the roadway or shoulder but keep them out of the ditch or outside road slopes where erosion can be a problem.

Koochiching adds a 20 mph speed limit on roads, while Lake County has a 40 mph speed limit. Cook County requires only a “safe and reasonable speed for conditions.”

Pine and Itasca counties have ATV roadway “policies,” short of full-fledged ordinances, that allow ATV use only on specific roads by permit. Permits are issued to recognized ATV clubs to pick routes on county roads to connect ATV trails.

Accident data shows many ATVers are killed on roads. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reported in 2013 that two-thirds of all ATV deaths in the U.S. happened on roads. The ATV death rate for on-road riding is rising at a faster rate than off-road riding, even as highway deaths are dropping for cars and trucks.

The Minnesota DNR has reported that a disproportionate share of ATV deaths are on roads — 86 of 142 ATV deaths in the state from 2006-14, more than 60 percent.

ATV users will surely enjoy the new freedoms, though probably none more than rebellious teens and people who’ve lost their drivers licenses. It will be interesting to watch this issue because ATVs — like the Boundary Waters, mining and choice of pickup truck — are a very emotional topic in Northern Minnesota.





  1. You should be discussing ways to eliminate distracted driving,instead of adding to it, by alowing atvs on roadways

  2. Nick Lansing says

    I will enjoy the “new freedoms.”

    Following ATV laws forced our deer hunting group into a frustrating routine for years. We’ d drive our trailered ATVs about 2/3 of a mile down a deserted county road, unload in the pre-dawn darkness, then ride into the forest. Repeat at night.

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