Trespassing ATV Riders Irk, but Few Legal Places to Hide

By Frank Wilkes Lesnefsky | August 7, 2019

MOOSIC, Pa. — The fence lining Jane Sterling’s property at the former Rocky Glen Park doesn’t prevent all-terrain vehicles ripping past her yard.

It’s not uncommon for her to see as many as 60 ATVs a day riding near her property and even hear them at 2 a.m.

They drive up Rocky Glen Road and other public streets to get to the private trails at the park and have knocked down her fence several times.

With 4,761 ATVs registered in Lackawanna County and few public places to ride them legally, keeping them off public roads and from trespassing continues to be problematic — as does curtailing the number of crashes and property damage they do.

Some municipalities, including Moosic, have barred or are considering barring riders from filling up at gas stations. Moosic’s ordinance carries a $600 fine for gas stations and riders who violate the law. However, it doesn’t appear to be working.

Others say there simply are not enough public places locally for ATVs and municipalities should designate more trails for riders.

“If you can take just one person off the road, that’s less of a job for the policemen,” said Dunmore Mayor Timothy Burke.

Deadly rides

With nearly 300,000 registered ATVs throughout the state, Pennsylvania had the second most ATV-related deaths in the country from 1982 to 2014 at 702, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. Texas ranked first with 773 deaths.

Of those nearly 300,000 ATVs, 178,276 have general registration, which means they can be used on or off the ATV owner’s property, said Jake Newton, executive assistant for parks and forestry at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The remaining 116,726 have limited registration that only allows them to be used on the ATV owner’s land.

In Lackawanna County, 3,236 ATVs have general registration and 1,525 have limited registration, Newton said.

From 2015 through 2017, an additional 59 people died on ATVs in Pennsylvania, according to the CPSC.

This year, at least five people in the state were killed on ATVs, including a New Jersey man riding on a Dunmore trail in May. In June 2018, an Olyphant man died after he crashed his ATV while driving illegally on North Valley Avenue in Olyphant. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

There have been numerous ATV wrecks in Lackawanna County so far this year. In April, two teens collided with a truck while riding an ATV on Drinker Street. And, three people were hurt on ATVs in Archbald in the past three months, including a 14-year-old girl who was severely injured when a side-by-side she was riding in flipped over in May.

Police departments often maintain restrictive pursuit policies that discourage officers from chasing riders, so officials seek other solutions.

Enforcing laws against ATVs is frustrating, said Jessup Police Chief Joseph Walsh.

“It would be great if they stopped, but again with the pursuit policy that we have, we don’t chase them, and they know that and they run,” Walsh said.

Chasing riders is dangerous, and police don’t stand a chance catching up to them because they can easily dart into the woods, he said. Both he and Archbald Police Chief Tim Trently deal with riders trespassing in the Valley View Business Park, which spans both boroughs.

Heart of problem

“We have had ongoing problems for the last 25 years with illegal riding in Pennsylvania,” said Don McClure, administrator of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which represents riders, ATV and off-highway motorcycle clubs and dealers throughout the state. “What people need to understand is that if they own ATVs or dirt bikes, they belong on the legal trail system. They don’t belong where they are not authorized.”

McClure attributed the high volume of ATVs on roads and private property to a lack of places to ride legally. Pennsylvania only has about 260 miles of free, public ATV trails, he said.

The trails are few and far between in Northeast Pennsylvania, McClure said. The county’s only free trail is the 33-mile O&W Rail-Trail, which begins in Fell Twp. and runs north through Susquehanna and Wayne counties, according to the DCNR.

“If you took every ATV and lined it up end to end, every inch of the trail system offered in Pennsylvania is occupied,” McClure said. “People want to recreate, they want to ride them, and they’ll take them out where they don’t belong.”

In the private sector, Lost Trails ATV Adventures in Dunmore has a little over 80 miles of trails across more than 2,000 acres, said owner Tony Novak. He chided those who trespass and ride on roads.

“They’re the ones that give a bad name to our sport,” Novak said. “Why buy the machine if you’re going to ride on the road?”

If municipalities create more places to ride legally, they can give riders somewhere to go, draw in tourists and turn a profit, McClure said. They can use state and federal funding, including the Department of Transportation’s Recreational Trails Program funding, to pay for feasibility studies, he said.

“The solution isn’t always restriction,” he said.

Tools already there

Barring riders from filling up at gas stations also isn’t the solution, Walsh said.

“The vehicle code is plenty restrictive,” he said. “There’s no need for an ordinance.”

If officers catch someone at a gas station, they can cite them for numerous vehicle code violations, including a lack of road-certified tires, lights and a horn and driving an unregistered vehicle, he said.

“You could really get writer’s cramp,” Walsh said.

Still, Archbald and Dunmore are looking into legislation like Moosic’s that would fine gas stations and ATV riders who ride to the gas station to fill up as officials search for solutions to their ATV problems.

However, in Moosic, which passed its ordinance in 2012, no gas stations have been cited since at least January 2018, and ATV riders are rarely cited for any violations, said Moosic police Chief Rick Janesko.

“These guys know that the police aren’t going to chase them,” he said. “They’re very brazen, driving extremely fast.”

If making it harder to get gasoline deters anyone, it’s worthwhile, said Burke, who regularly hears from Dunmore residents complaining about ATVs.

However, placing the onus of responsibility on gas stations isn’t the answer when just riding an ATV to the gas station is already illegal, McClure said.

Chapter 77 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code bars snowmobiles and ATVs from driving on streets and highways unless the roadways specifically allow them.

“The answer really is quite clear: Chapter 77 . pretty much covers every eventuality that a local government needs to enforce the rules, enforce the law and curtail and contain the illegal riding,” he said.

Pete Osmolia, owner of Osmolia’s Service Station on Birney Avenue in Moosic, doesn’t think the borough’s ordinance is working. He turns away about a dozen riders every weekend, he said.

“The point is, it doesn’t deter them,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for us . because we’re turning business away. I lose revenue because of an ordinance that is never really enforced.”

In Archbald, ATV enforcement is ramped up, especially with citing parents for laws their children break on ATVs, Trently said.

“If they’re allowing their children to be able to run these quads, they’re just as responsible,” he said. “They’re going to face the penalty just as much as their child is if they’re caught riding it on the roads.”

Other solutions

Trently said he intends to speak to state legislators regarding changing laws to allow for stricter enforcement and penalties.

Scranton police Chief Carl Graziano agrees that penalties need to be stricter to deter ATV riders when they run from police.

If someone is arrested for fleeing from police, their ATV should be impounded indefinitely, he said. Doing so would send the message that it’s not going to be tolerated in the city, he said.

Because pursuing ATVs is very dangerous, police need to rely on photos and videos, whether captured by officers or submitted by civilians, he said. The city then can post the footage on their Be Part of the Solution page on Facebook to identify the riders.

“You may not be able to get them that day but then you follow up on it,” Graziano said.

Last summer, after dealing with reckless riders throughout the borough, Jermyn rolled out a new solution that Mayor Anthony Fuga called a success: a police officer patrolling the borough on an ATV.

The ATV officer would stake out hot spots. If he saw riders flying by, he’d stop them and either warn or cite them, Fuga said.

“It was more of a shock thing to them,” he said. “We still have the traffic, but really now everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Moosic is looking to do something similar, Janesko said. Rocky Glen is one of the worst places in town when it comes to illegal ATV use, and he is working with council and property owners to have police patrol the land on a side-by-side.

Standing over ruins of the now-rotting wood fence across from her home, Sterling said she gave up repairing it. She’s lost tenants because of the noise, and the paved drive leading to her home is crumbling and dimpled with potholes _ something she attributes to years of knobby ATV tires cutting through.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” Sterling said. “We’ve all (let) it go too long.”

Safe riding tips

Don McClure, administrator of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association, recommended a few tips to stay safe while riding an ATV:

  • Make certain that the machine is sized correctly for the rider. Accidents often happen when children ride an ATV too large for them and they can’t physically manage it.
  • Avoid riding with a passenger. ATVs are designed for one person.
  • Wear safety gear. Eye protection, a helmet, long pants, high-top boots and long-sleeve shirts are ideal.
  • Ride only where it’s legal.
  • Don’t ride impaired. Alcohol is a tremendous problem when it comes to ATV safety, he said.

“If you are doing all of those things, chances are you’re going to have a safe experience,” McClure said.

About Frank Wilkes Lesnefsky

Frank Wilkes Lesnefsky wrote this for the Times-Tribune newspaper in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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