The following is a guest editorial by Public Works Engineer Jim Foldesi. It was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on April 17.
If it’s the responsibility of a newspaper to inform the public, then the recent article on St. Louis County’s proposed ATV ordinance missed the mark (Draft ordinance would allow ATVs on all St. Louis County roads, highways). The article began with an inflammatory statement, “… allowing all-terrain vehicles, with drivers as young as 12 operating at speeds up to 55 mph, on all county roads and highways”, and then buried the details that provide context.
My staff of engineers and I have been working since last fall, gathering input from hundreds of citizens county-wide, ATV users, representatives of cities and townships within the county, law enforcement, surrounding counties that have enacted ATV ordinances, and anyone else who wanted to voice an opinion, including those opposed to an ordinance.
The proposed ordinance does not mention youth and the speed at which they can drive, but rather follows what’s allowed by state statute. That means youth, ages 12 to 15, to drive an ATV on a road or right-of-way, must first earn a safety certificate from the Department of Natural Resources. This requires both an on-line safety course and a hands-on safety class.
Additionally, youth must be accompanied by their parent or legal guardian. It’s not enough to simply be accompanied by an adult. Riding with a friend’s 18-year-old brother isn’t sufficient. The parent or legal guardian must be part of the group when riding in the road right of way.
As for the speed limit, we are following state statutes and rules that say vehicles “may not operate in a careless, reckless or negligent manner,” and that it is unlawful to “operate a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable or proper under all of the surrounding circumstances or greater than the posted speed limit.” I can’t speak for law enforcement, but strongly suspect they would interpret a 12 year old driving 55 mph as being in violation of those rules.
Following state statute regarding speed and other operational requirements will result in better enforcement. Had we set our own rules and speed limits, only our Sheriff’s Office would have been responsible for enforcement. By sticking with state rules, all law enforcement – whether from the state or local jurisdictions – will share the authority.
Other points to consider – young people walk, run and ride bicycles on these same roads. Also, ATVs currently can operate in ditches and back slopes alongside county roads. From a safety perspective, a flat road is a safer surface than an obstruction-filled ditch. And moving ATVs out of ditches is better for the environment. And keep in perspective what county highways are. We’re not talking about interstate highways. Half of the county’s 3,000 miles of roads have an average daily traffic count of less than 200 vehicles and a gravel surface.
Our busiest roads are typically located within cities, and the proposed ordinance starts out by prohibiting ATVs on all county roads within city limits. It does, however, include a collaborative process involving the county, city and ATV clubs to determine which county roads, if any, within a city will be opened to ATV use. The county retains its jurisdiction over these county roads; however, we want to be good partners with our cities.
St. Louis County is blessed with vast expanses of natural resources and a growing network of ATV trails. But the trail system is not fully developed and there are numerous instances where drivers can only connect from one trail segment to the next by driving on county roads. That fact is what inspired this ordinance. We want to make it possible for responsible drivers to legally ride from trail to trail without having to stop and load up their machine each time they come to a roadway. We fully expect, as the trail system expands, that we will see fewer ATVs on our county roads.
This ATV ordinance is not a done deal. Throughout this process, we have sought and valued public input. That’s why we added the extra step of offering a 45-day comment period. People can email us comments until May 20 at email@example.com. Additionally, following a request by the Duluth City Council, our County Board is considering adding a public hearing in Duluth on May 10. The originally scheduled public hearing on May 24 will still take place in Hibbing.
We have a beautiful county, and seeing it while on an ATV is a good way for many to enjoy it. This proposed ordinance makes the experience possible in a safe, legal and responsible way.