ATVs rarely legal on roads in Washington

Q: Occasionally I see a larger off-road vehicle cruising through my neighborhood and recently I saw one being driven on a state highway. It appeared to have a motorcycle-sized license plate attached. In and of itself it doesn’t bother me but I noticed that these vehicles have no fenders or any way to stop rocks from being flung back into any vehicles that may be following. Are ORVs legal for street use in Washington?

A: This question might seem like it deserves a simple yes or no, but once we dig in you’ll see that it has many layers. The laws that allow off-road vehicles, or as they’re called in the law, wheeled all-terrain vehicles, to drive on public roads have changed a few times in recent years, so let’s take a look at the current situation.

If you think that sentence just gave away the answer to whether they’re legal or not, you’re only about half right. Yes, you can drive a WATV on public roads, but not all of them.

Let’s start with speed limits. WATVs are only allowed on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. In some instances, you can’t even cross a street with a higher speed limit.

The size of your county also matters. You’re not allowed to drive a WATV on public roads in a county with a population of 15,000 or more unless the county has an ordinance allowing it. Only seven of the 39 counties in Washington meet that threshold, so if you’re not in one of those seven and you can’t find a county ordinance, that’s a big no.

Even if a county has an ordinance, it may decide that some roads are unsuitable for WATV use and prohibit access. For example, Pierce County, which has a WATV ordinance, has 3,227 miles of roads but WATVs are only allowed on 354 miles of them. You can find the roads listed on the county website. Cities can also approve an ordinance allowing WATVs on city streets and can prohibit driving WATVs on specific streets.

WATVs are also prohibited on all state highways referenced in the law — that’s 194 highways that don’t allow WATVs. However, there’s an exception for segments of highway within city limits if the city works with the state and establishes an ordinance.

Let’s say you have access to roads that meet all the requirements for WATV use. That doesn’t mean you can hop on a WATV and go. These vehicles weren’t built for road use, so in order to be legal they need some upgrades. You’ll need a safety inspection from a dealer or repair shop. The inspection will confirm that the WATV has headlights, taillights, turn signals, brake lights, brakes, reflectors, mirrors, horn and muffler.

You mentioned a lack of fenders on the WATV that you observed, and curiously, the inspection checklist doesn’t include fenders. However, state law requires “fenders, covers, flaps, or splash aprons” on all motor vehicles.

If the WATV passes inspection, it can now be registered with the department of licensing for on-road use. I’ll note that all WATVs are required to be registered, so the presence of a what DOL calls a metal tag (the license plate) is not evidence that a WATV is approved for road use.

Are WATVs legal for street use in Washington? Sometimes yes, but with all the limitations you might find that in practice the answer is often no.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic column for this newspaper. He is the Target Zero manager for the state Traffic Safety Commission.