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Bill to let ATVs and UTVs drive on Iowa highways is moving forward in the legislature

a utv drives down a muddy track
A bill to allow ATVs and UTVs on state highways is advancing in the Iowa House.

A bill that would allow people to drive ATVs and UTVs on county and state highways is expected to continue advancing in the Iowa House of Representatives this week.

Current law lets county boards of supervisors decide whether all-terrain vehicles and off-road utility vehicles can be driven on certain county roads. Several ATV and UTV enthusiasts came to the Iowa Capitol last week to ask lawmakers to expand where they can drive.

Johnson County resident Greg Mulherin said he’s going to other states that don’t have as many restrictions, and is spending money there at gas stations and restaurants. He said Iowa is losing out on tourism money.

“If we were to go to western Iowa, as an example, for a vacation destination and be able to ride through all of the counties and not be concerned about which areas are legal or not legal, I can certainly tell you that is something that we would explore and do,” Mulherin said.

Bellevue Mayor Roger Michels said a new big campground recently opened nearby, and this bill could help bring tourists into town.

“For them to come into Bellevue, they have to come down Highway 52 to get to our town,” Michels said. “And then also on our other end of town, we have gas stations and restaurants. I have letters from 14 different residents and store owners in Bellevue that are in favor of this thing passing because I think that the state itself is passing up on a lot of revenue from this.”

The bill, which got its first round of approval from two Republican lawmakers last Tuesday, would remove counties’ ability to decide if they want to allow ATVs and UTVs on highways they control.

It would allow “ATVs and UTVs to operate on noninterstate primary highways over the most direct and accessible route between an ATV park or trail, a county highway, and a city street designated for use by ATVs and UTVs.”

Dan Kleen with the Iowa Off-Highway Vehicle Association said the group is opposed to the bill. And he said there are safety concerns with opening up all state highways to ATV and UTV use.

“You put a 35-mile-an-hour machine—no matter how big the roll bar or seatbelt is—on a road with a 65-mile-an-hour semi coming up behind you, it’s not a good situation,” Kleen said.

He said leaving those decisions up to local governments has worked well, as about two-thirds of counties now allow ATV use on county roads.

The Iowa State Association of Counties and the Iowa State Association of County Supervisors are also opposing this because they want local governments to stay in control of ATV use.

Mark Maxwell, a lobbyist for the Iowa Motorcycle Dealers Association and ABATE of Iowa, also said counties should stay in control.

“As somebody who lives in Des Moines, I don’t want ATVs and UTVs on the streets in Des Moines,” Maxwell said. “I understand in the smaller communities, it works well, and we have no problem with that. But one size does not fit all.”

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said passing this bill is a priority for him this year as chair of the House State Government Committee. He said farm machinery and bicycles are already allowed on state highways, which he said can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than being on an ATV or UTV.

Kaufmann said other states that took this step haven’t seen an increase in injuries.

“I’ve heard these same arguments at my county board of supervisors meeting, same arguments—they’re not for the road, safety this, safety that, death, gloom, blood, gore—doesn’t happen ever, anywhere,” Kaufmann said. “So it frustrates me that we’re denying this freedom to people.”

He said he intends to pass the bill out of the state government committee this week.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter