The Sauk County Board voted 20-7 Tuesday night to open miles of public highways to off-road recreational vehicles.
The approval of 31 applications is a major win for all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, who for more than a year have pushed to expand their network of road routes throughout the county.
Supervisors who supported the expansion said it would be an economic boon. They also pushed back against warnings from vehicle manufacturers, federal regulators and safety advocates who say ATVs and utility task vehicles are dangerous on paved surfaces.
Supervisor Tim McCumber of Merrimac said the Sauk County Sheriff’s Office provided him with statistics showing that there are far more crashes involving cars and trucks than ATVs within the county. He said most riders are respectful and courteous.
Others said there are more dangerous activities than riding ATVs on public roads, and the county should not be responsible for preventing every possible tragedy.
“More people die in the bathtub or falling down the stairs than they do with four-wheelers across the nation,” Supervisor Brian Peper of Loganville said. “So should we outlaw all bathrooms and stairways?”
Opponents of the expansion questioned such comparisons, as well as claims by ATV enthusiasts that more road routes will mean greater recreational tourism and business revenue.
Supervisor Tom Kriegl of Baraboo said because there are far more cars and trucks on the road than ATVs, comparing the total number of crashes between vehicle types was nonsensical. A more reliable comparison, he said, would be crashes per 1,000 miles driven.
“Saying that there’s fewer accidents with ATVs is meaningless because we’re not using an indexable standard there,” Kriegl said.
In 2013, the county approved an ordinance allowing ATVs on public highways. Last year, the board’s Highway and Parks Committee spent several months revising the rules to include additional safety measures and a more thorough route approval process.
The board’s action Tuesday went against the recommendation of a national coalition that last year urged supervisors to reject any future expansion of ATV and UTV access on public roads.
The coalition includes institutions such as the University of Iowa’s ATV Injury Prevention Task Force, Texas Children’s Hospital, and the University of Maryland’s Center for Shock, Trauma and Anesthesiology Research.
In a September 2018 letter to the board, the group said granting road access gives ATV riders the impression that driving on paved surfaces is safe, even though it is not. The majority of Wisconsin ATV deaths occur on roads, the letter said.
The new county highway routes will allow clubs to connect an existing network of town, village and city roads that local governments have approved.
Supervisor Brandon Lohr of Prairie du Sac said all of the constituent feedback he has received has favored opening the routes. He said promoting ATV use within the county gives young people something to do outside, and may prevent them from moving to other areas.
“These vehicles do bring a little bit of an adventure to these kids and I think that’s really important,” he said.