Under North Carolina law, an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) is defined as a motorized off-highway vehicle designed to travel on three or four low-pressure tires. An ATV has a seat designed to be straddled by the operator and handlebars for steering. An ATV is not street legal, meaning it cannot be driven on a public street or through a neighborhood in the state.
In contrast, a modified utility vehicle (MUV) or modified UTV can be driven on a public street. A MUV is a four-wheeled motor vehicle at least 110 inches long, 58 inches wide and 60 inches tall. A MUV does not require the passenger or operator to straddle the seat.
Registering a MUV in North Carolina
A MUV must be registered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation through the filing of a modified utility vehicle affidavit. The affidavit requests certain information about the MUV:
- Year, make and model.
- Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
- Attestation that the person filing the affidavit is a licensed manufacturer, dealer or owner with a relationship to the vehicle.
- Attestation that the MUV is equipped with proper vehicle safety equipment required by North Carolina General Statutes 20-121.1(2a), including headlamps, stop lamps, turn signal lamps, reflex reflectors, parking brakes, taillamps, speedometer, seat belts and rear view mirrors. All of the equipment must be in proper working order.
The affidavit must be notarized by a notary public. A MUV must be insured in accordance with state law.
MUVs on Public Streets
The law allowing MUV road use in North Carolina took effect on October 1, 2021. A MUV can be operated only on streets and highways where the posted speed limit is 55 mph or less. A MUV may not be operated on any street or highway with four or more travel lanes unless the posted speed limit is 35 mph or less.
A MUV may cross a road or street at an intersection where the road or street being crossed has a posted speed limit of more than 35 mph.
Rules for ATVs in North Carolina
It is unlawful for a parent or a legal guardian of a person:
- Under 8 years of age to knowingly permit the youth to operate an ATV.
- Under 12 years old to knowingly permit the youth to operate an ATV with an engine capacity of 70 cubic centimeter displacement or greater.
- Under 16 years old to knowingly permit the teen to operate an ATV with an engine capacity greater than 90 cubic centimeter displacement.
- Under 16 to knowingly permit the teen to operate an ATV unless the teen is under the continuous visual supervision of a person 18 years or older while operating the ATV.
A person operating an ATV is required to wear eye protection and a safety helmet that meets U.S. Department of Transportation standards for motorcycle helmets. A person operating an ATV may not operate an ATV on a public street, road or highway except for the purpose of crossing the public street, road or highway.
A person is not permitted to operate an ATV at any time on an interstate or limited access highway. As of October 1, 2006, an ATV operator born on or after January 1, 1990 must take and pass an ATV safety training course sponsored or approved by the All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute.
Where ATV Use Is Appropriate
The operation of an ATV is appropriate in off-road areas such as national parks when such operation is in accordance with federal law. For example, at Cape Lookout National Seashore, ATV use is allowed only on North and South Core Banks within the boundaries of the seashore. The National Park Service’s riding rules for this park provide:
- ATV driver must be at least 16 years old and have a valid standard driver’s license. A learner’s permit is not acceptable.
- Only utility ATVs may be ridden within the park. Sport models are not allowed.
- ATVs may be ridden only on designated trails and the open oceanside beach seaward of the dunes and down to the tide line.
- ATVs may not be ridden within an area closed for the protection of nesting birds and their young or for the protection of sea turtle nests. Current closures are available on the park’s protection zones page, with updates also sometimes posted to the park’s Twitter account.
- Posted speed limits apply to ATVs.
- ATVs left unattended for 24 hours or more are required to be parked in one of the designated parking areas and display a valid parking permit.
- Passengers may not be carried on an ATV unless the ATV was specifically designed by the manufacturer to carry passengers in addition to the operator. Modifying a single passenger ATV does not meet the “specifically designed” section of the law.
- An ATV must have a brake system, an effective muffler system and a U.S. Forest Service qualified spark arrester, all maintained in good working condition.
- An ATV operated at night, from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise, and at any time when visibility is reduced, must display a lighted headlamp and taillamp.
- Riders under 16 may not drive small-sized ATVs.
At Cape Lookout National Seashore, ATVs are to be used as a means to reach a camping spot, go surf fishing or go shelling. The park is not an “off-road park” that allows activities such as ATV racing, jumping, fishtailing, doughnuts and other extreme riding.
Uwharrie National Forest ATV Rules
In Uwharrie National Forest, ATV, UTV and MUV riders can operate their vehicles on motorized trails in the Badin Lake Recreation Area of the National Forest. A vehicle must have a day or annual pass or permit displayed on the vehicle.
The trail system is open from April 1 to December 15 annually. Unlicensed and unregistered vehicles cannot be driven on forest roads or through campgrounds and must be trailered to the trailhead in order to be ridden on off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails.
North Carolina State Park ATV Laws
North Carolina State Parks permit motorized vehicles, including ATVs, only in designated areas and not on park trails.
- North Carolina General Statutes: Chapter 20, ATV Safety
- North Carolina Department of Transportation: Modified Utility Vehicle Affidavit
- North Carolina General Statutes: Chapter 20-121.1, 1. Operation of a Low-speed Vehicle, Mini-truck, or Modified Utility Vehicle on Certain Roadways
- U.S. National Park Service, Cape Lookout: ATV Rider Information
- North Carolina State Parks: Park Rules
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uwharrie National Forest: Badin Lake OHV Trail Complex
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.