Putting the Brakes on Dirt Bikes and All-Terrain Vehicles

Carly Sitrin | March 8, 2018 | Politics
A new law would help keep ATVs off city streets and let cops impound those used to commit crimes ranging from gun running to dealing drugs

dirt bike
State lawmakers are looking to crack down on all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes in New Jersey, which have been accused of destroying the environment, causing traffic hazards, and aiding criminals.

The latest effort to impose restrictions comes from Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro (D-Gloucester), who introduced legislation this session that would allow law enforcement agencies to seize and impound all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and dirt bikes used to commit crimes involving guns, prostitution, or drug sales/possession.

“The ability to impound these vehicles as done with other vehicles used in the commission of a crime is an additional tool that will help keep our communities safe,” Taliaferro wrote in a press release.

The bill (A-3251) was released by the Assembly Law and Public Safety committee on Monday with wide support. Assemblyman Arthur Barclay (D-Camden) testified that the bill “hits close to home” with him as he said he frequently sees kids riding such vehicles around Camden and fears for their safety and the safety of drivers around them.

“I came maybe a foot away from hitting one of these kids,” Barclay said. “It’s dangerous, it’s going to hurt kids … it brings so much crap that we don’t need [into our communities].”

The state laws covering ATVs and dirt bikes are already pretty comprehensive — some riding enthusiasts think they are altogether strict — but law enforcement officials have said they still find it difficult to apprehend lawbreakers. ATVs and dirt bikes in the state must be registered, insured, and only used at designated speeds for specific off-road surfaces not on public lands.

Lt. Ted Schafer in the public information bureau of the state police said although they’ve received numerous complaints about ATV riders he could not point to any one instance in which such a vehicle was used to commit a crime of the nature cited in the legislation. Schafer said he checked data for more than a year and found no record of crimes specifically related to ATVs and dirt bikes in their jurisdiction.

“Nine times out of ten, by the time we arrive on the scene, the person is either gone or they rode off into the woods where our vehicles can’t easily follow them,” Schafer said. “It’s very difficult to enforce.”

Closing a loophole

The bill would close a loophole in the current law which prevents police from impounding ATVs and dirt bikes used in crimes, including drugs sales, prostitution, and weapons transport. As it stands, if a properly registered ATV is used to commit a crime, law enforcement may not seize it.

“ATVs are particularly dangerous when used improperly,” Taliaferro said in a statement. “They can easily evade police cars though backyards and alleyways where officers cannot pursue.”

More importantly, Taliaferro said during his testimony on Monday, the bill designates all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes as “motor vehicles” under state law and would extend the same impoundment rules as cars used to commit crimes.

Taliaferro said he thinks there is room in the legislation to expand the ATV restrictions further, to address environmental issues. Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel) voiced her intention to work with Taliaferro on amending the legislation to potentially include language expanding the reach to destruction of public property as well.

“In Holmdel, these vehicles just drive wherever they want and tear up the lawns and it’s a public nuisance,” DiMaso said on Monday.

Environmental concerns

New Jersey has a long and contentious history with off-roaders looking to take advantage of some of the state’s forests and open spaces. State laws prevent riders from taking their registered bikes on public roads and highways, driving many thrill-seekers (also known as “enduro” riders) into places like the Wharton and Brendan T. Byrne State Forests in the Pinelands.

In an effort to protect the vulnerable environment, New Jersey officials designated “non-sensitive areas” and approved tracts of land where bikers can ride. Off-roaders, however, have been known to stray from these paths in search of rougher terrain to put their vehicles and riding abilities to the test.

Environmentalists and preservationists over the years have butted heads with those riders, who they’ve accused of destroying portions of the Pinelands,
spreading invasive species (like purple loosestrife), and harming endangered species of plants and animals. The state police have also recorded multiple complaints from neighbors and residents across New Jersey regarding noise and destruction of property.

Now, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is considering setting aside land or designated parks for off-road vehicles (ORVs). Unfortunately, even that possibility has ignited the further ire of environmental groups like the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA).

“ORV parks are not the answer to illegal ORV riding,” the PPA writes on its website. “Legislation that requires registration and tagging and increased enforcement is necessary to deter illegal riding and protect properties and conservation lands from trespassing and destruction.”

Taliaferro’s legislation will be considered for a floor vote by the full Assembly in the coming weeks.