As the popularity of four-wheelers and multi-seat utility terrain vehicles grows in Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers hope to make it illegal to carry open containers of alcohol while driving them on trails, roads and highways.
State Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, said he and others were surprised when they learned it's not illegal to have an open beer or mixed drink while driving an ATV or UTV. He called it a gray area, and told Wisconsin Public Radio it makes sense to clear up the law.
"When people may think or hear that, 'Well jeepers, you can take and have an open container on an ATV.' It just doesn't make sense that that should be allowed or even to think that it should be allowed," Mursau said.
He's coauthored a bill, supported by fellow Republicans and some Democrats that would ban possession of open containers of alcohol and consumption of alcohol by anyone on an ATV or UTV on trails, highways or other public riding areas.
It's already illegal to operate the machines while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The blood alcohol limit of 0.08 already applies the same as it does for operating motor vehicles.
The bill does offer an exception — people who pick up empty beer bottles or cans from roads or trails are allowed to carry them.
"If you're going to be drinking and whatever, and then throw your cans or bottles in the back of the UTV and say, 'I picked them up,' there might be some issues," Mursau said. "But that's going to be up to the (police or DNR) officer to check out."
Two and four-seat utility terrain vehicles, also known as side-by-sides, have exploded in popularity since 2012. So too, have the number of crashes and injuries, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There were 103 reported UTV crashes in 2022 that resulted in 131 injuries and eight deaths. That same year, there were 129 ATV crashes reported with 124 injuries and 13 deaths.
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The number of ATV and UTV drivers arrested for operating while impaired hit a peak of 190 last year.
Wisconsin ATV/UTV Association President Randy Harden has been watching those trends and said he thinks banning open containers while driving can help.
"If we can do the open container (law), that's not a fix," Harden said. "But it's a start in the right direction."
Some local governments in southwestern Wisconsin, like Lafayette County have already banned open containers for ATVs and UTVs, but those ordinances only apply to roads the vehicles are allowed to travel on.
The number of municipalities and counties allowing ATVs and UTVs to travel on public roads and highways has grown exponentially, Harden said. He estimates there are now around 52,000 miles of roads and highways open to the vehicles. He said a change in state law would bring uniformity to the growing sport.
"It would make it consistent with motor vehicle laws, even though we're not motor vehicles, but we're interacting with them," Harden said. "And I mean, common sense would hopefully prevail here."
Mursau and Harding are hopeful the bill, which was introduced May 8, will be passed during the current legislative session.