Introduction to U.S. and Canadian off-highway vehicle laws

The current state of off-highway vehicle laws in the United States and Canada can be somewhat confusing, especially to those that travel with their ATV or other off-highway vehicles. Not too long ago, most states and provinces did not regulate the use of such vehicles, which as their popularity grew ultimately led to widespread problems with injuries and deaths to minors, trespassing problems, problems with destruction of sensitive habitats etc. As these problems become more widespread, many states and Canadian provinces began regulating the use of off-highway vehicles. Some states amended their vehicle codes to regulate the use of OHV’s and others drafted up new acts and legislation specifically to deal with off-highway vehicles. As a result, there is often a lot of confusion as some things that are perfectly legal in one state or province are not in another, so it is important to ensure that you are familiar with all the laws where you will be riding.

Operation by minors

Of particular importance is underage operators (children). Off-highway vehicle use has become a popular family activity, however due to an abundance of injuries and deaths involving off-highway vehicles and minors, most states have stepped in and regulated the use of OHV’s by minors. In some states, there is a minimum age to operating a ATV or off-highway vehicle. In some states, this applies everywhere in the state, while in others it only applies to operation on public lands. Some states restrict minors to operation of vehicles of a particular size, such as 70cc or 90cc engine size. Some require parental supervision at all times, some require safety classes to be taken and others require both. Most states that regulate OHV use have safety requirements, such as mufflers, taillights, headlights, spark arrestors and brake requirements. Some have special requirements in certain areas, such as colored flags in areas of sand or dunes.

Safety Certification

In recent years, many states have adopted ATV/OHV safety certification into legislation, requiring minors and in some cases all operators to pass a OHV safety class in order to ride on public lands. Some offer online courses, and others require in person, hands on training. Some states offer reciprocity to other states’ safety certifications, however not all do, so even if your child is certified for one state, he or she may have to receive certification in another state to ride there. In most cases, where the other state recognizes out-of-state certification you will be ok, but it is also better to check with the local agency that oversees OHV certification to make sure. A few states require ALL operators, both minor and adults to be certified.

Liability Insurance

Liability insurance is another important consideration. Currently, only a few states in the U.S. have laws that require operators of off-highway vehicles to carry liability insurance, however most Canadian provinces now require a specified amount of liability coverage. It is always wise to consider purchasing liability insurance, even if you are riding in a state or province that does not require it, because accidents happen, especially if you have children riding with you. Without it, an injury or death of another person or accidental property damage can potentially cost you tens of thousands of dollars or more in legal costs.

Following the laws of your state and other states you will be riding in is very important, not only to keep yourself on the right side of the law, but also to help ensure that everyone continues to have access to places to take their off-highway vehicles and knowing the laws of the state or province beforehand will help ensure you all get the most out of your trip.

Certificates of Title

Titling is the legal act of establishing a person as the rightful owner of a vehicle. In most Canadian provinces, "Titling" and "Registration" are all one transaction and is simply referred to as registration. In the U.S. however "titling" and "registration" are two seperate transactions. Many states do not require off-highway vehicles to be titled, however many others do. This can lead to problems for people that purchase vehicles from another state, as certain documents are required to title a vehicle and people that purchase a vehicle from a state that does not require titling and bring it into one that does often find themselves having some difficulty in titling the vehicle as most states will require sales tax to be paid or a document showing that taxes have been paid. In general, a vehicle purchase from 2 states that require OHV titling is a generally straight forward transfer of title, however going from a state that does not require it to another that does can be troublesome if you are not familiar with the laws and requirements.

If the vehicle comes from a state not requiring titling, you will require a bill of sale. Some states require this to be notarized, others do not. If you purchased this from a dealer, you will have one showing all details of the vehicle including taxes paid on the purchase. Ensure you know the sales tax laws of your state before your purchase, as some states have sales tax reciprocity with other states, but many do not, which will create a situation where you will be taxed twice on the same purchase, once when you purchase out of state and again when you go to title or register in your state. With states that have sales tax reciprocity, you can usually apply a credit of the out-of-state tax you paid against the taxes owing on your state. For used vehicle private sales, this is usually not a problem as sales tax is usually not charged at time of sale, but will be due upon registering or titling in your state. In short, a little research goes a long way and helps to eliminate surprises by knowing the titling and tax laws of your state and the state that you will be making a purchase in.

Registration / Permits

This is one particular area that leads to much confusion. As the off-highway industry grew, it become apparent that something had to be done to discourage people from illegal riding on private property or public lands where it was not permitted. Specialized off-highway vehicle parks or trails were introduced in some states, however upkeep was expensive and so many states began requiring registration of off-highway vehicles and using the monies to fund off-highway vehicle parks or trails. However this is where things became confusing, because registration or permits differ widely for different states.

Some states offer true OHV registration, just like regular motor vehicles, which can aid in locating or tracking stolen vehicles, however other states offer registration that is strictly used for recreational purposes and still other states offer OHV “permits” rather than registration. Some states’ registration is taken through the department of motor vehicles and other states handle it through the conservation or natural resources department. It gets even more confusing when it comes to honoring out-of-state registrations. Some states have reciprocity agreements with other states that also recognize their states registration, a “you recognize mine, I’ll recognize yours” approach that works well for some states, especially those that border one another. However other states do not have any reciprocity at all, or have rescinded it. This is very confusing and has led to legal problems for many off-highway vehicle riders operating out of state.

It is very important that you familiarize yourself with the registration/permit requirements of your state and the state you will be visiting. If the state you will be visiting offers registration reciprocity, ask the registering agency of your state if they recognize OHV registration from that state. If they say no, chances are good that you will need to register your vehicle in that other state as well. Be aware that in some states, the registration process is fairly straight forward, name, address, make, model and VIN of the vehicle etc. However in a few other states, the registration process is very similar to the titling process, so you may require proof of purchase, title documents from your state and other documents. Some of these require you to show that taxes on the purchase have been paid, or you will be charged for them when you register your OHV. Always have enough documentation to prove you are a non-resident of the state and your vehicle was purchased out of state to minimize the chances of unwanted extra taxes. Then there are states that do not require registration, however you may be required to purchase a local OHV permit if you intend to ride in state forests, or OHV trails or OHV parks. It is very important when riding in a state that does not have OHV registration/permits to check if you will require a permit where you intend to ride. Additionally you should also always check when you intend to ride in state forests or OHV parks/trails as a few states have registration requirements and also require local permits to ride in some areas.

Equally important is to ensure you verify what your registration/permit allows you to do and where you can ride, as some states are very liberal in allowing you to access public lands with the appropriate permit/registration and others are not, allowing OHV access only in a few designated areas. A couple states even require you to purchase OHV registration while prohibiting access to OHV vehicles on public lands. In general it is often best and cheaper in the long run to assume riding is prohibited in an area until you prove to yourself that it is not.