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On-Road ATV Use Broadened Slightly In 2021

The 2013 Washington State Legislature made major changes to the authority of riders to use some off-road vehicles (also known as Wheeled All-Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs) on public roads. Since then, ATVs have been increasingly used on public roads across the state.

In 2017, the legislature amended the ATV statutes to allow riders to cross a highway with a posted speed limit between 35-60 miles per hour if the city or county did not specifically prohibit crossing at a specific intersection or along the entire route within the jurisdiction. 

This year, the legislature made smaller changes to the ATV statutes with the passage of SHB 1322 and EHB 1251. This post will provide more information about these new bills and a few reminders concerning common questions related to ATV use.

A Reminder of the Basic Regulations

The primary statute that defines the authority and responsibilities of cities and counties regarding ATV use on public roads is RCW 46.09.455. Here is a summary of the basics:

  • ATVs can only be operated on roads where the speed limit for all types of vehicles is 35 mph or lower.
  • ATVs can only be ridden within cities and towns if the city or town council formally approves the use on specific roads, and the list of approved roads must then be made accessible from the main page of the city or town website.
  • Currently, ATVs can only be operated on state highway routes if within city or town limits and approved by the applicable city or town council.
  • In counties where the population exceeds 15,000, ATVs cannot be operated on public roads unless the county legislative body passes an ordinance approving the use. As with cities and towns, the list of approved roads within a county must be made publicly accessible from the main page of the county website.
  • In counties with a population of less than 15,000, the county legislative body can opt to designate specific roads as unsuitable for use by ATVs. This assumes such a list would be much shorter than specifying which roads are suitable for ATV use. Again, information about roads that ATV operators can/cannot access must be made publicly accessible from the main page of the county website. 

What’s New? 2021 Bills

This year, two bills addressed ATV use. The first, SHB 1322, modifies the reciprocity provision that allows a person who has properly registered an ATV in another state (and can show proof of registration) to use the vehicle in Washington without first registering it here. Fees are also waved.

This provision, however, does not apply to residents from a state that does not impose a sales and use tax on transactions involving ATVs. The law also penalizes owners who register their ATVs outside of Washington State to avoid paying the state's sales and use tax.

The second bill, EHB 1251, amends RCW 46.09.455 and expands the locations where a person may potentially operate an ATV, as long as it is approved by the local entity.

EHB 1251 expands use of ATVs to state highways in unincorporated areas where there is a posted speed limit of 35 mph or lower, and where the county, after consultation with the Department of Transportation, passes a local ordinance approving the use of ATVs in these areas. By and large, that means county governments will now be able to determine whether or not to approve ATV use on state highways in unincorporated areas.

Common Questions

Here are some common questions and answers related to ATV use on public roads.

Are ATV riders and passengers required by state law to wear helmets?

Yes. See RCW 46.09.444(2) and RCW 46.37.530(1)(c).

Can a local government prohibit ATV operators from carrying passengers?

Probably not. ATV operators are subject to all of the rights and duties of a motorcycle rider under RCW 46.37.530 and chapter 46.61 RCWRCW 46.61.610 sets the requirements for carrying passengers, and a local government cannot enact a regulation that is inconsistent with that statute. If the ATV is designed and meets the requirements for carrying a passenger, then it must be allowed.

If a local government prohibits the use of ATVs on public roads, is the jurisdiction required to post signs regarding that prohibition?

No. It is the responsibility of the ATV rider to check the local government’s website to find out if use is allowed and where it is allowed. Some local governments will use maps to indicate areas, such as Chelan County, Kittitas County, or the City of Moses Lake. Others, such as Yakima County, will offer a webpage covering the basics of ATV use in their jurisdiction. The Washington ATV Association website links to ATV regulations for several different jurisdictions.

We would like to pass an ordinance addressing ATV use in our jurisdiction. Do we also need to hold a public hearing on the issue?

No. There is no state requirement that a public hearing be held before an ordinance can be adopted. If there is a local rule requiring a hearing, that rule should be followed, but the only state law requirement is that the governing body approve ATV use through an ordinance. 


If you have questions regarding ATV issues, use our online ASK MRSC form to submit a question to our consultant staff.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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