New ATV law may put riders on the skids

Officer John Lordan of the 7th Police District in Northeast Philadelphia, works detail that gets illegal motor bikes off the road including Dirt bikes, ATV’s and unregistered motor bikes. ATV’s in Pennypacker Park have become a problen in recent years.

Many Philadelphians have had terrifying close calls when they turn a corner to find one of their neighbors barreling down the street riding a three- or four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle or mini bike straight at them.

Police stepped up efforts in recent months to chase down and ticket these illegal ATV riders, but they weren’t allowed to follow riders into wooded areas or set up roadblocks to stop them. The maximum fine was $200 and impoundment, which means many ATVs were eventually returned to scofflaw owners.

Now, stiffer city laws will empower police to confiscate and destroy ATVs as well as enable officers to slap some owners with $2,000 fines.

City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced the measure, Bill №120725, on behalf of the Nutter administration, and it passed Oct. 25. There was a four-hour public hearing on the bill in early October. The councilwoman said the law would take effect in March.

“Two thousand dollars is steep, really steep,” Chris Martin, 40, a Lawncrest resident and flea market vendor who is a lifelong ATV rider, said of the new regulations. “And confiscating and destroying them? It should be a ticket. What’s the fine for riding a horse down the street?”

But Martin agreed that the city should have stiffer ATV laws.

“If some jackass is riding down the street boogying around at 90 miles per hour and there’s people in the way, they should be held responsible,” he said.

The public threat from ATVs and mini-bikes is real. Data collected by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that 521 deaths were recorded in Philadelphia between 1982 and 2010 as a result of ATVs, and between 1998 and 2006, 105 of those deaths were children younger than 16.

“Philly is taking a giant step forward by beginning to apply existing laws,” said Dick Lepley, executive director of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which supports the new legislation.

However, Lepley pointed out that enforcing the new law will be the real test.

“If enforcement had taken place years ago, we might not be dealing with this problem now,” Lepley said. “The last thing Philly needs is to have a draconian ordnance that can’t be enforced.”

It already was illegal to ride ATVs or mini-bikes on public streets and sidewalks. But parts of the River Wards were still popular locations for illegal ATV riding. Star previously reported on a police crackdown this summer that led to 100 ATVs being confiscated, but many owners were able to pay the fines, re-purchase their ATVs at a police auction, and possibly return to dangerous ATV riding.

The new law is considerably stiffer. ATVs found in illegal operation on public streets and sidewalks can be confiscated, or owners can be fined $2,000 if they can prove their vehicles are worth more than $2,000. Additionally, authorities can dispose of the ATVs by destruction or other means that prevent them from returning to the streets.

Tom Yager, vice president of the ATV Safety Institute, based in Irvine, Calif., hailed the new law as a positive step.

“The real opportunity is the city’s interest in developing a legal riding area,” Yager said. “People won’t ride ATVs in illegal areas when there are legal ones.”

Councilwoman Reynolds Brown has indicated that she supports the idea of setting up a public ATV riding park in Philadelphia where ATV and mini-bike riders can safely enjoy all-terrain riding.

“This is step one in a multistep process,” Reynolds Brown said in her press release announcing the new law. “First, we have to get a handle on public safety, giving police the enforcement tools they need to crack down on what remains an illegal activity — riding ATVs in our public sidewalks, streets and parks … [Then] we are committed to sitting down with ATV enthusiasts for whom riding is a fun, recreational activity, and those in the private sector who see an opportunity for a safe and profitable business venture.”

But in cash-strapped Philadelphia, it’s anyone’s guess whether park space or funding can be found to set up a safe, legal ATV riding arena.

In Egg Harbor Township, N.J., a similar problem was resolved by setting up “Ready to Ride,” a family oriented ATV, dirt bike and go-kart riding facility, which is operated by the Egg Harbor Township Police Athletic League.

National Youth Project Using Minibikes (NYPUM), an organization funded by Honda, also sets up safety training courses in various locations around the country to teach teens and younger riders how to responsibly have fun riding ATVs and mini-bikes.

Yager said that he didn’t consider the destruction of ATVs found to be in violation of law an infringement of the rights of “responsible” ATV riders.

Yager also pointed out that the Philly’s new law is consistent with the ATV Safety Institute’s “Golden Rules” of proper ATV use, which include always wearing proper helmets and safety gear, supervising riders under the age of 16, never riding on paved roads and only riding at safe speeds on properly designated trails.

“There are millions of ATV users within the United States that drive responsibly,” he said. “Hopefully, the city will continue investigating legal riding opportunities, because it’s a win-win.”

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.