Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Kate Radford
Contributing Writer 

Know your OHV laws, rules and regulations


File Photo

A rider kicks up dust as he speeds down the shoulder of the Highway 200 in Lincoln, headed in the wrong direction, on an unlicensed ATV in 2017.

As summer returns to Lincoln, so, too, do off-highway vehicles. Proper operation of OHVs, particularly in town, can help ensure the safety of kids, pedestrians and others sharing the highway.

For residents and visitors alike, rules governing OHV use can be confusing, with the laws set out in the Montana Code Annotated. Additionally, depending on where the vehicle is being used and the age of the operator, the requirements to safely and legally drive an OHV can vary.

OHVs are defined as "self-propelled vehicles used for recreation on public roads, trails, easements, lakes, rivers, or streams" on the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website. Motorcycles, quadricycles (four-wheeled motor vehicles designed for on- or off-road use), all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides are all considered OHVs. Despite the name, OHVs can be operated on paved highways, so long as operators abide by the relevant statutes.

"The ATV operator must abide by all traffic laws, such as speed limits, stop signs, lane use, direction of travel, turn signals/hand signals in the absence of the blinker lights, DUI laws, etc.," wrote Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Scott Zarske in a 2013 BVD article, prior to his retirement.

"All motor vehicles, including motorcycles and quadricycles, are entitled to the full use of a traffic lane," according to MCA 61-8-359, which goes on to state, "Every person riding a motorcycle or quadricycle upon a roadway is granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a motor vehicle except for those provisions which, by their nature, can have no application."

The Montana Department of Justice, Motor Vehicle Division oversees the issuance of registration and license plates for OHVs. To ride on paved highways, OHVs must be registered and be street legal, which includes having a license plate attached to the rear of the vehicle.

MCA 23-2-824 governs the operation of OHVs on public roads, streets and highways, and delineates a number of specific requirements. In addition to being registered and licensed, OHVs operated on highways must have at least one headlamp and taillamp, which must be lighted at all times during operation.

Zarske also noted in his article that ATV operation in the borrow pits is permitted under state law, with special circumstance. "The operator must have permission of the highway patrol, county commission or municipality; dependent on whether the roadway is a city street, county road or state highway," he wrote.

The state allows OHV's to ride in the borrow pits in the Lincoln area but safety concerns, particularly related to the dust raised by OHVs, nearly prompted the Montana Department of Transportation to close the use of borrow pits to both snowmobiles and OHVs in 2011.

Operators of OHVs on public roads must also have a valid driver's license. An operator is exempt from this requirement if they are between 12-16 years old, and have in their possession a certificate showing successful completion of an approved OHV safety course. They also have to be in the physical presence of a person with a driver's license. Kids under 12 may also be exempt from this requirement, if they are accompanied by an adult and operate the OHV in a reasonable and prudent manner.

Montana FWP-approved OHV safety courses are available online, and the certificate earned has no expiration date.

Protective headgear that meets Montana Department of Justice standards is required for minor operators or passengers of OHVs ridden on streets or highways, according to MCA 61-9-417.

MCA 61-8-401 governs driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which also applies to the operation of OHVs.

For off-highway use, a separate set of requirements apply. These can vary depending on the type of trail.

"OHV use is increasingly popular and can significantly impact the economics of our state. Riders of all ages, abilities, and even those with disabilities can enjoy the iconic scenery and health benefits inherent in outdoor recreation," the Montana FWP website notes, adding, "Access to trails and OHV areas on public land is a privilege, and conscientious use of that privilege will help to maintain these important resources and opportunities."

Passes or permits are required for use of most trails on public lands, although some Forest Service and BLM roads may be available for OHV use, according to the Montana FWP website.

OHV Resident Trail Passes, which were created by the Montana Legislature in 2019, are valid for up to two years and are required for residents who wish to ride OHVs on trails on Montana public lands. Revenue from the $20 passes is designated to be distributed through grants to maintain and improve OHV routes on Montana public lands.

Nonresidents are required to purchase an annual $35 Nonresident Temporary Use Permit for use on trails.

MCA 61-9-418 governs noise suppression and spark arresters and states that motorcycles or quadricycles may not be operated off-highway unless they are equipped with an adequate spark arrester to prevent the escape of sparks or other burning material from the vehicle's engine.

OHV pre-ride checklists, operator responsibilities, registration information and laws governing use are available on the Montana FWP website, which notes that, "Montana has many miles of developed trails for great riding adventures. Responsible riders know that riding on public lands is a privilege. The best way to protect your riding privilege is to stay on designated trails and act respectfully toward other users, wildlife, and the environment."


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