Guide to ATV and UTV Laws in California

guide to atv and utv laws in california

Continuing in our series of articles analyzing the ATV laws in every state, which stemmed from this article, we are addressing the ATV laws in California in this article.   It should also be noted that, while I am an attorney, I am not your attorney and am not giving legal advice.  If you have questions, you should consult a local attorney.

How does California define and ATV and UTV?

California defines ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) and any vehicle meeting the following criteria:

  • designed for off road use with an operator and no more than one passenger
  • fifty inches or less in width (check out common ATV sizes)
  • nine hundred pounds or less in unladen weight (check out ATV weights)
  • suspended on three or more low-pressure tires
  • has a seat designed to be straddled by the operator, and
  • has handlebars for steering control.

While California does have a definition for a “utility-terrain vehicle,” but the UTV or side by side we are talking about is referred to by California as a “recreational off-highway vehicle.”  They are defined as vehicles with the following characteristics:

  • designed by manufacturer to be operated primarily off the highways and streets
  • use a steering wheel for steering control
  • has non-straddle seating for driver and passengers
  • has a maximum speed capacity greater than 30 miles per hour, and
  • has an engine displacement equal to or less than 1,000cc.

Do California ATV laws apply on private land?

The ATV laws in California do not apply on private property.  The laws apply only on lands accessible to the public.

Are you required to register your ATV in California?

In California, you must register your ATV or UTV and display an identification plate or devise issued by the State.

There are exceptions to the registration requirement for ATVs used solely in husbandry, or ATVs used solely for racing or competitve events upon a closed course conducted under the auspices of a recognized sanctioning body.  

California will also recognize a currently valid registration issued by another state.  Note this will not make an ATV street legal in California just because it is street legal in your state.  We explain this and everything you need to know about getting a street legal  ATV in this article.

guide to atv and utv laws in california

What equipment is required for an ATV or UTV in California?

  • Headlamps.  Headlamps are required for the operation of ATVs and UTVs from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise.  The headlamp must be at least one one white light directed toward the front of the vehicle with enough light to reveal persons or vehicles at a distance of at least 200 feet.
  • Taillamps. Taillamps are required for the operation of ATVs and UTVs from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise.  The taillamp must be at least one one red light that is clearly visible from the rear of the vehicle.
  • Brakes. The brake system must be in good working order and adequate to control the vehicle in any conditions upon which it is being operated.
  • Muffler. An ATV or UTV must be equiped with an adequate muffler or exhaust system that is not equipped with a cutout, bypass or similar device.
  • Spark Arrester. A spark arrester is required on any ATV or UTV being operated on any forest-covered land, brush-covered land or grass-covered land.  The spark arrester must be qualified and rated by the United States Forest Service.

Can you operate an ATV or UTV on California streets?

Generally, ATVs and side by sides are not permitted on California highways, to include streets.  The exceptions to this rule are as follows:

  • you may cross a two-lane street at an angle of approximately 90 degrees
  • you may cross a street greater than two lanes only where such crossing is permitted by appropriate signage
  • you may drive on any street where the appropriate authority has designated the street for ATV travel under the following conditions: it is not dark out, the street has an operational stoplight, the ATV has rubber tires, and you have a driver’s license.

What safety equipment is required to operate an ATV or UTV in California?

In California, all riders, not just those under 18, are required to wear an approved helmet to operate an ATV or UTV.  If this means you need to pick up a new helmet, check out our Recommended Gear for a great option at a good price.

Operators of a side by side in California, and their passengers, must also wear a seat belt (including shoulder belt) or safety harness

Are you permitted to carry a passenger on an ATV or UTV in California?

In California, you are not permitted to carry a passenger while operating an ATV on public lands unless the ATV, unless the ATV is designed to carry one additional passenger.  

In a UTV, passengers are only permitted in designated seats designed to carry a passenger.  The passenger must also be of such size that they can sit in the seat, with their seat against the seat back, and their seat belt fastened, while being able to reach and grasp the passenger handhold.

Note that an aftermarket handhold is acceptable.

Is a safety course required to operate an ATV in California?

For ATV operators under the age of 18, a safety course is required when operating an ATV on Public Lands.  For those between the age of 6 and 17, there is funding available for training through the ATV Safety Institute.  You can contact them for more information at (800) 887-2887.  Additional information is available on the Free ATV Safety Training web page.

Are there age restrictions in California for the operation of ATVs or UTVs?

For any ATV operator under the age of 18, they must satisfy one of the following 3 criteria:

guide to atv and utv laws in california
  • The operator is taking a prescribed safety training course under the supervision of an instructor;
  • The operator is under the direct supervision of an adult in possession of a safety certificate; or
  • The operator is in possession of an appropriate safety certificate.

Any person under the age of 14 operating an ATV must be supervised by an adult authorized by the parent or guardian of the minor.

To operate a side by side (ROV) in California, you must be 16 or older, or you must be supervised in the vehicle by an adult authorized by the child’s parent or guardian. 

All persons operating an ATV or UTV must have the ability to reach and operate all controls necessary to safely operate the vehicle.  For children under 14, the parents are responsible to ensure they can reach and operate the controls.  

Does California have special speed limits for ATVs or UTVs?

The general requirement for ATV or UTV use in California is that you shall drive at a speed that is reasonable and prudent and in a manner that does not endanger the safety of other persons or property.

If you are riding within 50 feet of any campground, campsite or any concentration of people or animals, the speed limit is 15 miles per hour unless posted otherwise.

Brent Huntley

Brent Huntley is the owner of ATV Man and is responsible for almost all the material on the website. He also runs and loves to travel and ride ATVs with his family. When he isn't playing, his day job consists of owning Huntley Law.

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