City narrowing rules for off-road vehicles

Brett Berntsen
Dunlap Performance And Motorsports LLC owner and operator Darryl Dunlap talks about how to make an off-road vehicle street legal Thursday at his shop in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – With a change in state law that will allow off-road vehicles to be driven on paved streets taking effect next month, city lawmakers are taking a cautious approach toward allowing the vehicles in town.

“The state took a risk in passing this law,” City Councilor Nathan Duckett said. “We have to be careful so we don’t open Pandora’s box, and it becomes a free-for-all.”

Councilors on Tuesday agreed on modifications to a proposed ordinance, opting to allow larger, recreational off-road vehicles, or ROVs, on city streets, but banning smaller, four-wheelers and all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs.

Duckett said ATVs cannot drive safely at the speeds required to keep up with traffic and would create dangerous situations. ROVs, however, are about the size of a Smart car, and contain seat belts and controls similar to an automobile.

Councilors agreed to set a maximum speed limit of 45 mph for ROVs, and will require the vehicles to have turn signals, mirrors, horns, mufflers and an illuminated speedometer. Drivers will also need to wear helmets and protective eye wear.

In addition to its own rules, the city has to comply with existing state statues, some of which conflict with the current reality.

New Mexico's 1978 off-road vehicle act stipulates drivers must slow to 10 mph within 200 feet of a bicyclist, pedestrian, business or occupied dwelling — situations that drivers would encounter throughout most of the city limits.

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, who sponsored the change to state law, said the rule is an example of a few kinks that lawmakers will have to address during next year's legislative session.

“The drafters were not really on top of some of the details,” Neville said. “But we’re not expecting judges to get weird about it.”

Darryl Dunlap of Dunlap Performance And Motorsports LLC is seen in a rear-view mirror that was installed on his personal off-road vehicle at his shop in Farmington.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said officers will likely not enforce the 10-mph rule. Hebbe said he would like the state to require off-road vehicles to display license plates, though. Currently, the vehicles only have registration stickers.

As with motorcyclists, Hebbe said there might be a few bad apples, but he generally expects ROV drivers to obey traffic rules.

New Mexico is joining 35 other states that allow off-road vehicles on paved streets. Support for the vehicles remains strong in many circles, but critics have raised safety concerns.

“Over the last 10 years, this has been a disturbing trend,” said Michael Best, a senior policy advocate at the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit organization that has taken a stand against allowing ROVs on roads. “Even if it’s legal, if doesn’t make it safe.”

Best’s organization documented more than 500 off-road vehicle fatalities in 2015, a number he called conservative considering the small amount of data available. Moreover, he said a majority of the deaths occurred while the vehicle was being driven on a paved road. Although four-wheelers and small ATVs are the most dangerous, Best said ROVs also carry risks.

“They’re still not supposed to be driven on pavement,” he said. “It’s one of the golden rules. Manufacturers write that on the side of the machines.”

Off-road enthusiasts in Farmington, however, argue that the spirit of the law is meant to help people drive to trail heads, rather than around town.

Darryl Dunlap displays a street legal kit for off-road vehicles that includes turn signals Thursday at his shop in Farmington.

Darryl Dunlap, owner of Dunlap Performance and Motorsports, said “pocket book” regulations will likely curb significant city use.

He said the turn signals and other after-market equipment required to make the vehicles street legal can cost up to $500, and the specialized tires would only last several hundred miles on pavement. With a new set costing at least $600, Dunlap said people won’t be cruising down Main Street much.

Alongside Farmington, San Juan County and Bloomfield also are considering allowing off-road vehicles on their streets. The county plans to draft a resolution implementing the state law without any additional restrictions, according to County Attorney Doug Echols. Bloomfield is still in the information-gathering stage, police Chief Randy Foster said.

Farmington will vote on its rules at the next City Council meeting May 10.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.