ORV operation in Michigan

July 01, 2015

There is a lot of misleading information floating out there regarding what people think they can and can’t do when it comes to operating their off road vehicle in Michigan.

Since 1991 you could only ride your off-road vehicle (ORV) on a designated ORV trail and private land. Most people thought you could ride them on two track trails in the woods or on state land, even in the roadway, which was incorrect information and illegal in the Lower Peninsula. The general rule in the Lower Peninsula is that ORV use was closed unless the area was posted open. In the Upper Peninsula, ORV use is legal unless posted closed. The reason for the law since 1991 was because of all of the damage being done in the Lower Peninsula by ORV use on state land. This new act doesn’t change that, but it does allow new changes for use on county roads.

In 2008 Public Act 240 was signed into law, which allows counties, townships, cities and villages in northern Michigan to allow ORV operation on their roads. Several northern Michigan counties had adopted their own ORV ordinance which now is no longer valid since this act was signed into law. These roads that are now open are county roads only and not state highways. State highways have a large (M) in front of the numbers and it is illegal to operate on these roads. Example would be M-55, M-72 or M-93 and of course there is no operating on an expressway.

This act allows counties, cities, townships and villages to begin the process of adopting an ordinance that would allow them to open certain roads with-in-their-jurisdiction. Prior to this process beginning each county would have to pass an ordinance and have a 45 day comment period so their road commissioners could determine if there were certain roads in the county that the road commission may want to keep closed to ORV use. It also gives the DNR an opportunity to review the plan if state forest lands are in the county and included.

Once the county has passed an ORV ordinance and after the 45 day waiting period the townships could begin the process of deciding which roads they wanted open for ORV use. Cities and villages also have the ability to open roads with-in- their jurisdiction.

Keep in mind each county ORV ordinance covering the rules for ORV operation may not be the same in every county.

As an example I am going to review some of the rules in the ORV ordinance that Crawford County has:

1) You can operate your ORV on the far right-hand portion on any county road that each township has opened at a speed of no greater than 25 mph.

2) All state highways are closed to ORV use, which include M-93, M-72 and M-18 along with I-75 and I-127.

3) You may not operate an ORV if you are under the age of 12 and must travel with the flow of traffic.

4) You must wear a helmet, eye protection, and have a working headlight and taillight.

A lot of these rules mimic state law, but it’s your responsibility to find out what the rules are in the county that you plan on riding in.

Law enforcement officers are running into ORV users who heard that the law changed but they have no idea what the new law allows and doesn’t allow. Many ORV users think they can ride their machines anywhere. Or they are getting bad information from other people.

Officers are finding people riding not only on the shoulder of state highways but have found some people riding on state highways in the lane of travel just like a motor vehicle.

Basically the new ORV law allows people to operate on the right hand shoulder of any county road that is open to ORV use in that county. The biggest reason for this new public act was to allow ORV users a way to get from point A to point B without hauling their ORV on a trailer to get there. It allows riders to use these county roads to gain access to gas stations, trails, and other businesses. Another reason for the passage of this act was to benefit Michigan’s economy.

Living in northern Michigan I have seen a very large increase in ORV use. Most people operate their ORV in a lawful and respectful manner. You see many large groups, including families, operating their ORV throughout the county I live in. Yet you still see some folks not operating their machines in a respectful and legal manner.

Most Sheriff’s Departments who have ORV trails in their county have ORV Law Enforcement grants from the DNR to patrol the trails. Plus you have Michigan Conservation Officers, State Troopers, and local law enforcement that also enforce ORV laws.

One of the biggest issues law enforcement officers run into is that some people allow ORVs to babysit their children. They just allow their child to take the ORV and just take off riding without any adult supervision. Children under 12 years old are not allowed to operate an ORV and children under 16 years old can only ride an ORV if they are supervised by an adult or have attended an ORV safety class.

There are a few other laws that some people aren’t aware of. If your driver’s license is revoked or suspended you may not operate an ORV. If you are arrested for operating an ORV while under the influence of alcohol or drugs you can be charged under the motor vehicle code just as if you were operating your own car and or truck.

You must wear an approved helmet while riding your ORV. Several people have thought since they changed the law on motorcycle riders not having to wear a helmet, you no longer have to wear one.

Another issue some riders have run into is some county roads, as they enter into another county, are no longer a county road but a two track and the law changes.

Starting in 2014 the ORV trail permit that you now need in order to operate your ORV has changed. If you are only going to ride your ORV on a county road there is a separate ORV permit for that. If you are going to ride your ORV on a trail system you need a separate permit for that. Total cost for 2015 for both are $36.25.

Some snowmobile trails, unless posted otherwise, are only for snowmobiles. There are many that are open to both ORV and snowmobile use. The orange diamond shape on the trail indicates it for snowmobile use only. As an example the Blue Bear Snowmobile Trailhead starts on M-72 just west of Grayling. This trail has a triangle symbol and is open to snowmobile and ORV use.

The most important thing to do is check with the county you plan on riding your ORV in and read their ORV ordinance. Find out which county roads are open to ORV use and check the DNR website for ORV trails in the area you are going to be riding on. A lot of the language is the same in most of the county ordinances in northern Michigan but it’s the rider’s responsibility to know what they are. You can also check online to review the ORV laws for the state of Michigan at www.michigan.gov/dnr. The best thing to do is to check the signage on the trail before you use it!

Lastly, this new act doesn’t cover southern Michigan counties. It basically covers the northern 43 counties in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Author is Jeff Pendergraff, retired Captain with the DNR Law Enforcement Division and owner of JP Trophyhunts