Motor Vehicles or High-Powered Toys: The Diverse Landscape of Off-Road Vehicle Regulation and Where it Might be Going

Mike Gentine

With uses ranging from transporting troops to increasing mobility for people with disabilities, off-road vehicles (ORVs) are being used by more people now than when the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) emerged in the 1960s. With increased demand comes increased discussion about how ORVs are regulated. And the answer is, it depends on where you live.

In some countries, consumer product agencies regulate ORV safety, while in others, motor vehicle agencies take the lead. ORV manufacturers that sell in multiple markets must therefore engage with regulators with varying frames of reference. Those differences can complicate how ORV safety is regulated. While the direction of future regulation is uncertain, manufacturers will need to understand new regulatory ideas, as well as the varying mindsets of the agencies that may propose them.

In the United States, ORV regulations developed piecemeal. By default, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates ORVs. The CPSC is responsible for any product that is used by consumers unless the product is regulated by another safety agency. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has jurisdiction over motor vehicles, but federal law defines a “motor vehicle” as being “manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways.” Because ORVs are generally not intended for on-road use in the U.S., the NHTSA has no authority over them and they are regulated by the CPSC.

The first major category of ORVs – the ATV, characterized by straddle seats and handlebars – entered common use in the late 1960s. About 20 years later, the CPSC asked each ATV manufacturer to adopt a voluntary “ATV Action Plan.” The plan aimed to reduce risks to children, and it committed each company to work with its dealers to provide age-ratings for youth-size ATVs and to prevent sales of adult-size ATVs to minors. About 10 years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act made Action Plans mandatory and adopted the voluntary safety standard (ANSI/SVIA 1-2007).

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