Some see danger ahead in ATV statute

The measure will allow the vehicles on some unpaved public roads Oct. 1, but counties can vote for an exemption.

Published August 19, 2006

The rules are about to change for all-terrain vehicles.

At the moment, ATVs are banned on Florida’s roads, but come Oct. 1, a new statute will allow them on unpaved public roads where the speed limit is less than 35 mph.

The statute, 316.2123,  has other restrictions: ATVs may be driven on the roads only during the day and only by licensed drivers or by minors under the “supervision” of licensed drivers.

Any county that doesn’t like this idea can exempt itself, the statute says, by a majority vote of its county commission.

On the North Suncoast, where ATVs have proved both popular and dangerous, some in law enforcement and local government think this new law is going to cause trouble.

“It’s a bad piece of legislation, especially in light of what just took place over the weekend,” said Deputy Donna L. Black, Hernando sheriff’s spokeswoman. “Having multiple ATVs on county roadways, it could compound the problem and put more people in harm’s way.”

Last Saturday, a 13-year-old girl in Hernando died after being thrown from an ATV that her 12-year-old cousin was driving. It was the fourth serious crash in the Tampa Bay region in just over a week and focused attention on the perils of these powerful machines.

“Is this state going backwards or what?” said Hernando County Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden on hearing about the new statute. “What was in these legislators’ minds when they approved something like that?”

Rowden said she was absolutely opposed to ATVs on public roads.

On Thursday, the attorney for the Hernando Sheriff’s Office sent a letter to the county recommending a resolution to ban the ATVs on public roads.

Elsewhere on the North Suncoast, and across the state, officials were moving more slowly.

In Pasco County, Assistant County Administrator Bipin Parikh  said he was “vaguely aware” of the issue and hadn’t really paid attention to it yet. He added that he would ask the county’s traffic safety committee to talk about it at its next meeting.

Doug Tobin, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, said his department had not found fault with the new rule.

“We don’t have any plans to seek an exemption to that law in Pasco County,” he said.

In Citrus County, things are still up in the air, according to Gail Tierney, spokeswoman for the Citrus Sheriff’s Office.

“The new legislation is currently with our legal counsel, and he is looking at it to see what in fact the Sheriff’s Office may or may not recommend to the local commission,” Tierney said. “It’s basically in the review process.”

One place where ATVs will likely not be welcomed is on the roads of the state forests.

“Typically, ATVs are not allowed on any of our roads. They’re only allowed in the motorcycle area,” said Winnie Schreiber , manager of the Withlacoochee Forestry Center.

She and her colleagues had begun talking about the change only in the last few days and were still trying to decide how to approach it statewide. “Our sense is that nothing is going to change here,” she said. “ATVs are not going to be allowed on our roads.”

The change in the law was part of a 97-page Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles bill signed into law in June.

State Rep. Greg Evers , of the northwest part of the Florida Panhandle, proposed the amendment as a way to help recreational and agricultural ATV riders.

“Here in the Panhandle, we don’t have any motor tracks where the kids can enjoy these, and there was also a problem even with farmers and ranchers on dirt roads where they were getting cited or getting warnings,” he said.

Evers said the new law will actually make it safer to ride ATVs because people will be able to use the roads instead of blazing their own trails through the woods.

“On most of your dirt roads, there’s not going to be that much car traffic, especially when you’re dealing with dirt roads that don’t exceed 35 mph,” Evers said.

Although it opens up more room for ATVs to travel, the law is also part of an effort to regulate who can drive them. Also included in the bill was a provision that ATV drivers under 16 must pass a safety course. That goes into effect July 1, 2008.

Maj. Ernesto Duarte, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol in Tallahassee, said this safety education provision was an important part of the context for the changes to ATV driving rules.

Still, there are worries about driving these four-wheelers on the public roads.

“We obviously urge those operators to be extremely careful,” Duarte said. “Those vehicles do not afford seat belts, air bags and other types of protections that other vehicles have. They travel in terrain that’s not paved and that’s hidden with danger.”

If they notice a problem, Duarte said, individual FHP troop commanders will talk it over with local governments, which can exempt themselves from the law.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.