ALL-TERRAIN (ATV) and side-by-side/utility vehicles (SSV/UTV) fall under two distinct categories: those that are road-legal and those that are not.

In the UK, the ATV and SSV market is mostly made up of non-road-legal models, which are registered by the user with the DVLA as an agricultural vehicle and used as a working machine for farming, forestry, land management or similar purposes.

When used on the road, these vehicles don’t require an MOT, but they must be registered and licensed for road use, and have a number plate and third-party insurance. They also need fully compliant lighting if used after dark and there are limitations placed on how far they can travel.

According to James Dalke, BRP’s commercial manager for the UK, with road-legal ATVs having evolved to become as powerful and capable as their off-road equivalents, they now offer arborists and foresters increased levels of versatility, freedom and protection.

“There’s now a huge variety with different accessories and abilities,” he said. “Anything from standard utility bikes, which are generally more prevalent in agriculture, to larger ATVs with 1000 cc engines and the side-by-sides, particularly popular in forestry situations because they travel better, they make less mess and make light duties a bit easier.

“It comes down to what people are using it for, but if you’re running through coppicing, a bit of woodland, carrying out thinning or extracting a young tree that’s not of huge size, they can get around quite a bit faster and easier than anything else. So it gives you quick access to areas you would otherwise have difficulty getting to.”

While a good number of people are using off-road units, James said these were most suited to  estate work and small-scale forestry, where the property might be owned and managed by the same person.

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“The advantage of having the road-legal units is, if you want to travel around various different areas of land that are spread quite far and wide, you don’t then have to worry about putting the unit onto a trailer and having another vehicle to travel around with. Some of the units have travel speeds of 40 or 60 mph, so you can get around just as quickly by driving them from one place to another.

“It’s a developing market. Winches on the quads can help with the extraction of trees, logs, whatever it may be, assisting in a situation where ordinarily you would have to use machines that are too big for the job. If you’re doing council work or some kind of maintenance, you can use an ATV or UTV for quite a lot of different things, even deliveries.”

However, while many arborists have woken up to the possibilities of ATVs making their lives easier, they haven’t always been cognisant of the rules and regulations around their use.

“The rules haven’t changed for a long time, but it’s not very easy to find information about what they are,” said James. “There’s always been a misconception that just putting a number plate and adding some indicators on the back makes an ATV road-legal. Obviously, that’s not the case. It’s down to the type of vehicle you’re riding, whether it’s an off-road vehicle or an on-road vehicle and the taxation class.

“There’s been, to a large extent, either ignorance of it or a known flouting of the law. People will say ‘oh, it’s all right, as long as it has a number plate and indicators, nobody’s going to stop me’. And there’s a good chance they will get away with it, up to a point, usually when you start employing people.

“When you do that, you have to answer questions about insurance and, if there’s an accident and an investigation, someone could pick up they shouldn’t have been that far away from the address where it’s registered. You can end up in a lot of hot water with the authorities. As an employer there’s a duty of care and liability to ensure the vehicles being driven by staff are correctly registered.

“If you’re a tree surgeon or most any kind of contractor, the land you’re using that vehicle on is not going to be owned by you, so straight away you’re flouting the law. That’s a key issue. The dealers in our network have a good understanding, because of the range we do, and can advise people accordingly, based on the work they’re doing.”

It is an issue that James said, over time, is certain to become more pertinent and receive more attention from the authorities, because of the higher travel speeds the vehicles are now capable of.

“In the past, most quad bikes only did 30 to 40 mph, so no-one was really too bothered. But, on the basis you can now get a road-legal 60 mph quad bike, if more people are using them and if there are any accidents, there’s the likelihood that it will come under a lot more scrutiny in the coming years.”

So just how quickly is the ATV/UTV market developing?

“Very quickly, to be honest,” said James. “Certain manufacturers are really pushing that. Some are staying fairly stagnant with the tried and tested, but I think there are other manufacturers like ourselves, Polaris and a few others that are really trying to push the capabilities.”

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As an example, he highlighted the ABS technology installed on Can-Am’s Outlander range, which was developed specifically for ATVs in partnership with Bosch. The system was tested thoroughly during a comprehensive engineering programme that included more than 40,000 km on a variety of typical UK terrains, including mud, snow, tarmac, gravel and dirt. The aim was to ensure that, when the ABS technology is activated, it maintains stability when braking on slick surfaces and provides the user with consistent, predictable responsiveness by preventing wheel lockup on any terrain.

“It means that at higher travel speed, the braking is safer, especially if you’re pulling a load behind you,” James said. “What it also does, essentially working as a traction control system, is it will sense which wheels are slipping and send power to the other wheels. It aids handling off-road as much as it does braking safety.”

Again, this boosts capability, making the units a better fit for a wider variety of situations, but also increases the odds of them attracting the wrong kind of attention.

“As with anything, there comes a point when people start using the products in a different way,” said James. “Because they are more comfortable, bigger, more capable and travel faster, people are then travelling further on them. That’s where we’re outpacing the law, to a certain extent. We’re then sat in a position where the vehicles are being used in a completely different way than they were originally intended. That’s where the likelihood of accidents happening creeps in and the whole industry will have to regulate itself more strongly.”

To help ensure users are aware of the risks and act responsibly, with every unit BRP sells, it offers a half-price training course with the European ATV Safety Institute (EASI).

“That’s certainly something we feel anyone using the vehicle should be doing,” said James. “It shows you’ve had adequate training and you understand the dangers. It does no harm to understand and respect the machinery that you’re using. At the end of the day, it is machinery and we need to view it as that, rather than a toy.”

So are there advantages to opting for off-road instead of road-legal?

James said: “If you’re not doing a huge amount of work with it and it’s in an enclosed situation – a single estate, for instance, all on internal roads – there’s not much need to go for a road-legal version. The off-road versions are also unrestricted on the top speed, whereas road-legal units, depending on which you go for, are limited to 60 mph with ABS and 40 mph without.

“But there’s not too much difference in cost between them. So, quite a lot of the time, we find if you add up the number plate and the lighting kit and the time to install it on the off-road version, it amounts to the same cost as the road-legal version on which everything’s come factory-fitted. Then, in later life, it can be put to other uses, whereas an off-road unit will only ever be fit for off-road.

“The difference comes down to the usage. If I’ve any advice to give to people, it’s to be clear on the usage and the travel time you’re likely to spend on the road. That’s really what dictates which route you go down. If you can be clear on that with the dealer, they should be able to advise you accordingly.”