skip navigation
Share this:

All-Terrain Vehicles Renamed and Rolling

The 2013 Legislature has significantly changed the statutes relating to the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other types of off-road vehicles in the State of Washington. ESHB 1632 (Laws of 2013, 2d Spec. Sess., ch. 23), which goes into effect on July 28th, is going to require jurisdictions to reconsider the use of these vehicles by the public, and to confront safety issues.

In ESHB 1632, the Legislature changed some basic terminology: many of the off-road vehicles commonly referred to as ATVs are now designated under state law as “wheeled all-terrain vehicles” (WATV). The definition of WATV is quite detailed and is found in subsection 19 of Section 2 (and 3!) of the legislation, both amending RCW 46.09.310.

Significantly, ESHB 1632 changes where these vehicles can be allowed to operate. Some cities, towns, and counties may soon get requests from individuals or groups who want their legislative body to allow WATV use on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or less. It will be up to the legislative body in each jurisdiction to decide whether WATVs will be allowed to operate on those lower speed roads – see Section 6 of the legislation for details. (Note that existing law applies to require that a person operating a WATV on-road must posses a valid driver's license, although the person is not required to have motor vehicle insurance.)

In cities and towns, operation of WATVs on roads within their jurisdiction with a speed limit of 35 MPH or less is not allowed unless the council, by ordinance, approves.

County decisions regarding WATV use will govern only unincorporated portions of the county. In counties with a population of 15,000 or more, WATVs are not allowed on public roads within the county (not including nonhighway roads and trails) with a speed limit of 35 MPH or less, unless the county legislative authority, by ordinance, approves their use. In counties with a population of less than 15,000, WATVs are specifically allowed on all roadways with a speed limit of 35 MPH or less unless the county legislative body, by ordinance, designates specific roadways within its boundaries to be unsuitable for use by WATVs.

Counties, cities, and towns are required to compile a list of streets open to WATV use or, in counties under 15,000 population, restricted from WATV use – and the list must be public and made accessible from the main page of the jurisdiction’s website (if a jurisdiction has one). WATV users must be able to go to the official website of the jurisdiction and easily see whether or where WATV use is permitted. If a jurisdiction decides to prohibit WATVs from operating on any roads within the jurisdiction, that can be indicated on the website without the need to compile a road list.

Other highlights of the legislation:
  • WATV owners will now need to acquire and affix a license, which must be renewed every seven years. There is an additional licensing tab that must be obtained and affixed to the license if the vehicle is operated on a public roadway.
  • All WATVs operated on public roads must have designated equipment, such as lights, brake lamp(s), reflectors, rear view mirror, etc., and have documentation of a safety inspection done by a licensed WATV dealer or repair shop – see Section 7 of the bill for details.
  • Off road vehicles are now specifically allowed to be operated on any trails, non-highway roads, or highways when engaged in emergency management purposes, in addition to search and rescue operations.
  • An owner of a WATV that will be operated on public roads must sign a form releasing the state of any liability and stating that the owner understands that the vehicle was not manufactured for on-road use.
  • A county may, by ordinance, designate a road or highway within its boundaries to be suitable for use by off-road vehicles - now regardless of whether that road or highway serves as a connection between a city of less than 3000 population and an off-road vehicle recreation facility.

The legislation contains many other provisions that should be reviewed carefully by local legislative bodies and by those enforcing traffic laws.

When issues regarding WATV use come knocking on your door, we highly recommend that you knock on your legal counsel’s door. I hope that we all bring some common sense to the table: should vehicles not designed for public road use be allowed on public roads, and, if so, where? What do your law enforcement officials think? What do your residents think?

Suggestion: residents of your jurisdiction who own and operate WATVs might be confused about these changes. A short update on your web site or in your newsletter about the issues might help avoid some confusion and traffic citations. Until councilmembers or commissioners open roadways to use by WATVs, you might want to remind your residents that WATVs are strictly off-road vehicles until specifically allowed on-road (except in unincorporated areas of counties with a population of 15,000 or less – see comments above).

Update: The RCW changes made in this legislation have now been incorporated into the Model Traffic Ordinance through emergency rules (WSR 13-15-067), effective July 28, 2013.


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.

Photo of Jim Doherty

About Jim Doherty

Jim had over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He had special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana. He is now retired.