Snowmachines and four-wheelers could be legal on Alaska’s roads under a new Dunleavy administration proposal that’s raising questions even among some off-road enthusiasts.
The proposed policy would change existing state regulations to allow ATVs, snowmobiles and “all-purpose vehicles” on roadways with limits of 45 mph or less. Right now, it’s illegal to operate them on maintained roads except to cross from one side to the other.
The rule change, which is open for public comment until April 18, would require a headlight and other lights as well as brakes and other equipment. It would allow municipalities to prohibit snowmobiles or all-purpose vehicles from using roadways.
But even people who support better access for off-road vehicles say they don’t know enough about the governor’s proposal to say whether it’s a good idea.
Is it aimed at clarifying rules for the state’s rural communities, where people use snowmachines and four-wheelers for everything from hunting and fishing to shopping and visits? Or is it a blanket new policy that could put off-road vehicles on busier roads on the Kenai Peninsula, Mat-Su and Fairbanks?
“A lot times you look at sponsors and information, then the intent becomes a lot clearer,” said Kevin Hite, who owns EagleQuest Cabins and Lodge in Willow and served as president of Anchorage and statewide snowmachine groups. “Without that, I don’t know if I’m taking the correct side.”
It’s easy to say more access is always better, Hite said. “But that’s not always appropriate.”
The proposal was announced last week in a notice posted by the state Department of Public Safety Public.
Officials at that agency say they didn’t craft the proposal and were simply asked by the governor’s office to collect public comments. The department is operating under an interim commissioner following Amanda Price’s resignation last month.
The Department of Public Safety has no opinion one way or the other on the proposed rule change, spokeswoman Megan Peters said.
A spokesman for the governor’s office would not answer any questions about the proposal, including who came up with it and why.
“Until the public comment period has finished the governor’s office will refrain from commenting,” spokesman Corey Young wrote in an email Monday.
Off-road vehicles are a way of life in Alaska. People around the state use off-road vehicles for recreation but also relatively cheap travel. Analysts say riders are increasingly spotted on roads, bike paths and sidewalks or crossing driveways on roadside trails. The state doesn’t require licenses, permits or helmets.
Regulations vary with many communities deferring to state provisions, though numerous smaller Alaskan municipalities allow off-road vehicles on city roads.
Few states have a blanket position on snowmachines or four-wheelers on roadways, according to a survey of state-by-state policies compiled by the American Council of Snowmobile Associations. Multiple states allow them on a county by county basis or in ditches or on shoulders. Arizona allows street legal off-road vehicles but resident operators need to have a title, registration, liability insurance and a license as well as safety equipment.
In Alaska, snowmachines and four-wheelers are regular sights in rural communities where some residents use them instead of cars.
Alaska has the eighth highest vehicle ownership rate per capita in the country yet about 10% of the state’s households don’t have access to vehicles, according to a 2019 University of Alaska Fairbanks study.
The road-riding proposal was met with cheers from some.
A Facebook post celebrating the idea drew dozens of positive comments — some from people who thought it was already legal to ride on the roads. Many pointed out that, with lights and other equipment, the vehicles are not much different from motorcycles.
David Noy, co-owner of a North Pole ATV rental shop, says the proposal came as a surprise but he supports it as long as riders are responsible and stay at safe speeds.
Four-wheelers aren’t supposed to use the roads in North Pole now. That didn’t used to be enforced, but people are getting stopped more now, “which is kind of unfortunate,” Noy said. “They’re requiring people to have to load machines up on trucks or trailers to go a couple miles down the street to get to a trail they otherwise could just ride to.”
Riding on roads isn’t a good idea in downtown Fairbanks but is a good fit for rural areas or villages, he said. “It’s much more feasible for me in summertime to jump on the side-by-side and run to the gas station for a few things than it is to start my truck.”
Other avid riders, however, say riding on the roads could come with potentially dire consequences. Some roadways with 45 mph speed limits are basically local highways rather than back roads. Some heavy-use 55 mph roads may include 45 mph sections put in place for safety reasons.
Putting off-road vehicles on roadways near cars and trucks poses a higher safety risk, according to the UAF study, which was conducted for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The Alaska Trauma Registry records show a higher percentage of ATV and snowmachine injuries occur on roads than in wilderness areas or on trails, according to the study. About a quarter of all traffic-related crashes in Kotzebue -- where there were 604 registered snowmachines and just 372 passenger cars -- involved either snowmachines or ATVs.
On-road use of four-wheelers is opposed by the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a nonprofit representing national manufacturers and distributors of all-terrain vehicles, as well as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission’s 2018 annual ATV report on deaths and injuries found there were 81,800 ATV-related emergency department-treated injuries reported around the country in 2018. More than a quarter were sustained by riders under 16 years old.
Mike Buck, a snowmachine and four-wheeler safety instructor who lives near Palmer and spent decades in Valdez, said he has “real concerns” about the new proposal given the state’s already high injury and death statistics involving off-road vehicles.
Riding in rural places is sometimes the only way to get around, though riders should get training to know the dangers, Buck said. “I think on highways it’s going to open up some real problems.”
He, too, wonders what triggered the new proposal.
“I’m just really curious who initiated it,” Buck said. “There’s got to be somebody who’s really passionate about being able to ride snowmachines and four-wheelers on roads.”
Comments on the proposed regulation change can be submitted in writing to Alaska Wildlife Troopers Director’s Office at 5700 E. Tudor Rd, Anchorage, AK 99507, emailed to email@example.com or submitted through the Alaska Online Public Notice System at aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices/default.aspx.
Questions can be submitted to the director’s office or by email at least 10 days before the end of the public comment period.