Our Voice: ATVs on roads question worth getting public input

Benton County commissioners are taking an issue to the people.

The potential for all-terrain vehicles to be permitted on county roads will be the topic of two upcoming public hearings.

While we can see a debate on the wisdom of ATVs on county roads, we're impressed the commissioners want to hear from residents before making a decision.

A relatively new state law already allows four-wheeled ATVs on public roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less in counties with fewer than 15,000 residents.

The law also gives bigger counties like Benton the option to choose to open up public roads to ATVs. Cities and towns can do the same.

Prosser recently decided to open up some city roads to the recreational vehicles.

Commissioner Shon Small is the advocate for ATVs on county roads on the commission.

He said his constituents have asked for it.

And while the three commissioners didn't spend much time discussing the benefits and drawbacks to such a plan, they readily agreed to hold the hearings, somewhat of a rarity, especially on a topic that may impact a relatively small segment of the population.

The state law comes with a few changes for ATV owners, including license plates and licensing fees. It also includes equipment safety standards for vehicles being driven on public roads.

Proponents say the law allows for increased recreation opportunities and will cut down on off-roading that damages the environment.

The fees generated by the law can only be used on projects that benefit off-road vehicle recreation.

That could include signs, education, trail maintenance and enforcement.

Small said opening up some county roads will create more opportunities for family recreation, although one caveat is that drivers must be at least 21 years old.

Farmers, who frequently use ATVs, would also have legal routes from one property to another.

In areas closer to lands managed by the state where ATVs are allowed to roam, we can see the benefit of being able to use roads as a route to connect from oneoff-road site to another.

On the other side of the question is safety -- both for those on the ATV and others using the road.

A recent column writer Charles Jennissen (In Focus, April 25) lists several concerns that need to be weighed in the decision, like "more than 60 percent of all ATV-related deaths in the United States and in Washington have resulted from riding on roadways, even though the vast majority of ATV use is off-road."

He also said that ATVs' fixed-rear axel and deep-tread tires are designed for off-road travel but pose problems when used on roads.

An ongoing debate among outdoor enthusiasts -- motorized vs. nonmotorized -- was bridged a bit with the passage of this law, with some folks on both sides coming together in favor of it.

More than anything, we're just happy to see the commissioners seeking input from residents before deciding on the issue. That's the way good leaders operate.

We'll be interested to see how many folks turn out for the hearings.

If you care about the issue, it's important to show up and show the commissioners your appreciation for the opportunity to give your two cents.

The hearings are expected to be in the evenings in Prosser and Kennewick. Stay tuned for the dates and times to be announced.