California ATV Laws

Laws | June 30, 2019

Updated March 2024

ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, are a fun way to explore the outdoor arena in California. ATVs are a class of off-highway vehicle (OHV) that riders can operate in designated areas. California enforces strict regulations surrounding ATV operation that are meant to keep riders safe.

Man Riding ATV in Dirt with Helmet

What Does California Define as an ATV?

ATVs possess several key characteristics that separate them from other off-roading vehicles. According to Vehicle Code 111, ATV’s possess:

  • Three or four low-pressure wheels, depending on how old the vehicle is.
  • A frame that is no wider than fifty inches and no heavier than 900 pounds.
  • One seat meant for the rider to straddle while operating.
  • No more than one additional seat for a passenger.
  • Handlebars as a form of steering.

Green vs. Red Stickers

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) denotes the air safety of off-roading vehicles using green and red stickers. Both stickers act as a form of registration, making them necessary for all ATVs.

Green stickers allow riders to operate their vehicles on public land that the state designates for off-highway vehicle recreation. Green-stickered vehicles meet the California Air Resource Board’s (CARB) air emission standards. This means the OHV owner can operate their vehicle at any time during the year. Green stickers cost $52 and drivers must renew them every two years.

Red stickers restrict ATV riders from operating their vehicle in non-designated riding seasons. Red stickers apply to OHVs made in 2003 and on that do not meet CARB’s air emission standards. Riders cannot modify their red stickered ATVs because the state enforces this regulation at the manufacturer level. This means that all OHVs with a vehicle identification number (VIN) that denotes red sticker-status will remain within this designation, even if the rider modifies it. Purchasing a vehicle from a DMV-approved company prevents consumers from buying red sticker OHVs.

Riders must affix their stickers to the rear quadrant of their ATV on its permanent metal or plastic frame.

ATV-Riding Laws

California enforces laws for OHVs in general and ATVs as a subcategory. Important ATV-related laws to abide by include the following:

  • All operators of ATVs must be able to reach the vehicle’s pedals and operate all ATV controls.
  • Parents are legally liable for choosing appropriately-sized ATVs for children and monitoring them while in use.
  • Riders may only carry passengers if the ATV possesses an extra seat specifically made for passenger transportation. Seat kits are not safe and the ATV users their manufacturers market should use them.
  • All riders must wear helmets.
  • Adults do not need an ATV safety certificate when riding alone, though might need to acquire one when riding with a child.
  • Riders aged 14-17 must obtain an ATV safety certificate.
  • Riders aged 14-17 require adult supervision to operate an ATV.
  • Riders under 13 require adult supervision by an adult that possesses an ATV safety certificate.

General Requirements

ATV riders must also abide by OHV general traffic requirements.

  • ATV speed must remain considerate of speed limits and all traffic laws while on roadways. Off roadways, the rider must make judgment calls pertaining to speed, except when within 50 feet of other individuals, campsite, and/or animals. In this case, the required speed limit is 15 mph.
  • ATV riders must not operate their vehicle off-highway in a reckless manner. They must abide by all signage posted in designated areas.
  • Riders with suspended or revoked licenses must not operate their vehicle until the DMV reinstates their licensure.
  • Open-container and DUI law applies to ATV operation.
  • ATVs must possess working lights that the rider must activate 30 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after sunrise. ATV lights must include a front-facing white light and a rear-facing red light.

Common Causes of ATV Accidents

ATV accidents can result from various factors, ranging from mechanical failures to human error. Understanding these common causes can help ATV riders mitigate risks and stay safe while enjoying their off-road adventures.

  • Mechanical Failures: Defective parts, lack of maintenance, or improper repairs can lead to mechanical failures such as brake malfunctions, steering issues, or engine problems, resulting in accidents.
  • Terrain Hazards: Uneven terrain, obstacles like rocks or fallen branches, and unexpected changes in elevation can pose significant hazards for ATV riders, leading to loss of control and accidents.
  • Excessive Speed: Riding at excessive speeds increases the likelihood of accidents, especially on rough terrain where obstacles are harder to spot and navigate around.
  • Inexperienced Riders: Lack of experience or training in ATV operation can lead to poor judgment, improper handling, and increased risk of accidents, especially among younger riders.
  • Reckless Riding: Engaging in reckless behavior such as performing stunts, attempting dangerous maneuvers, or riding under the influence of alcohol or drugs significantly increases the risk of accidents.
  • Environmental Factors: Adverse weather conditions such as rain, snow, or fog can reduce visibility and traction, making it more challenging to control the ATV and increasing the risk of accidents.
  • Human Error: Distractions, inattention, or failure to follow safety guidelines and traffic laws can contribute to ATV accidents, emphasizing the importance of responsible riding practices.

By being aware of these common causes of ATV accidents, riders can take proactive measures to minimize risks, prioritize safety, and ensure a more enjoyable and incident-free off-road experience.

Riding an ATV can be an exhilarating experience, but riders must remember that ATVs are still a regulated form of vehicle. California poses numerous important guidelines that keep ATV riders safe; abide by these rules to legally enjoy your ATV and prevent an ATV accident.

If you were injured on an ATV either due to a defective part or another’s negligence, you may be able to recover compensation. Speak with our accident lawyers in Sacramento to learn about your legal options.