Partners, instructors help make ORV safety a priority

Instructor Alan Nelson coaches academy  participants on techniques for riding over obstacles.

Sept. 12, 2013

Michigan is a hot destination for off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts, offering nearly 3,700 miles of designated ORV trails and routes, as well as designated ORV scramble areas and the most unique ORV state park east of the Mississippi River -- the 450-acre ORV scramble area within Silver Lake State Park in Oceana County.

As the popularity of ORV riding in Michigan increases, so, too, does the demand for quality, comprehensive safety education. That's where the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its many partners enter the picture.

D.J. 'Buck' Niles teaches class at 2013 ORV Instructor AcademyThe DNR's Law Enforcement Division has a Recreational Safety Section that heads up the state's ORV safety education program. The section consults with involved users, ORV organizations and existing ORV instructors to continually improve this program.

According to Lt. Andrew Turner, who oversees the DNR's recreational safety programs, everyone's working to ensure that all ORV opportunities offered in the state are covered in the safety education program content.

"DNR volunteer instructors are required to be well-versed in all disciplines of ORV equipment," said Lt. Turner. "To ensure these instructors possess the required skills to provide competent, consistent delivery of the state's ORV safety education program, the DNR and its volunteer instructors have developed a free, comprehensive, three-day ORV Instructor Academy for all new ORV instructor applicants. Once instructors successfully complete the academy course, they're equipped to go into their own communities and teach ORV safety education."

Lt. Turner said that anyone seeking certification as a DNR ORV safety education Instructor must meet the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years of age.
  • Be a high school graduate or possess a graduate equivalency diploma (GED).
  • Have no felony convictions.
  • Have no misdemeanor convictions within the past three years.
  • Have no convictions that resulted in the revocation of ORV operation privileges within the last five years. (Other convictions of natural resource law violations are subject to review and may result in the rejection of any application.)
  • Maintain a high moral, ethical and mental character.

Participants and instructors from the DNR's 2013 ORV Instructor Academy weekend in Roscommon.Although the DNR aims to offer three academies each year in different regions of the state, Lt. Turner said there have been logistical challenges with locating appropriate training facilities (which must have classroom accommodations, cafeteria services, lodging and a large and flat area for the hands-on, ORV range portion of the academy).

Presently, ORV instructor academies have been exclusively held in Roscommon County near Higgins Lake, though the DNR is actively searching for appropriate locations in the southern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.

"With the aid of our partners and volunteers, since 2011 we've been able to train 110 instructors through seven ORV instructor academies," said Cpl. John Morey, the DNR's ORV and snowmobile coordinator. "In order to maintain that success rate and ensure broader safety training, it's vital that we secure quality training opportunities and locations in other parts of the state."

Participants and instructors from the DNR's 2013 ORV Instructor Academy weekend in Roscommon.Participation is limited to 24 students per academy, and applicants are educated in areas dealing with policy and procedure, state laws, industry standards, classroom management and teaching concepts. Additionally, applicants receive hands-on instruction covering off-highway motorcycles (OHMs), all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility-type vehicles (UTVs), as well as electric winches and recovery strap equipment. The hands-on portion of the academy gives participants a firsthand understanding of safe and responsible operational techniques dealing with various ORV disciplines.

The DNR's ORV safety education effort is 100-percent user-funded. Every ORV operated in an area open to the public must display a valid DNR ORV license. One dollar from the sale of every license goes directly to the safety education program, providing the sole funding source for the program's printed materials such as the ORV Handbook, student manuals, tests and other administrative materials. The funding also covers support equipment and administrative personnel costs.

While DNR conservation officers do teach at the academy, Cpl. Morey said the financial constraints of the program have been somewhat relieved by the interest of people outside the DNR who possess certain skills and expertise and are willing to share it.

Volunteers work with academy participants on best practices for off-highway motorcycles. D.J. "Buck" Niles is an experienced educator from Jackson County. Niles provides instruction at the academies, helping would-be instructors learn how to manage a classroom and grasp teaching concepts that work with students of various ages. He said that maintaining the attention of a diverse group of students certainly has its challenges, but the program works.

"This is a quality program," Niles said. "Helping people learn the fundamentals of transferring knowledge makes it a safer sport."

The Shiawassee County husband-and-wife team of Alan and Cheryl Nelson plays a big role in delivering off-highway motorcycle instruction for the academies. The Nelsons, who are affiliated with the Cycle Conservation Club of Michigan, coach academy participants on "real world" techniques like how to properly and safely ride over and around obstacles.

Hands-on instruction begins as if each applicant is a novice ORV user. The academy teaches basic safe and responsible operational techniques. By the end of the academy, applicants have experienced a variety of ORV equipment and are aware of their own confidence level with each piece of ORV equipment.

Pat Brower educates students on proper extraction techniques for getting out of tough situations. Pat Brower is an active member of the Great Lakes Four Wheel Drive Association and United Four Wheel Drive. Brower also sits on the ORV Advisory Workgroup, which provides recommendations to the DNR regarding the entire ORV program. He has been extremely valuable in the development of the existing safety education program content -- especially vehicle extraction -- due to his extensive off-road experiences.

"Every vehicle extraction involves forces that can quickly turn deadly. We are proud that our program includes safe extraction techniques," Brower said.

"While we hope students never need the information provided in this section of study, should it ever become necessary, we feel much better knowing they can perform the task in the safest manner possible," he added.

ORV Instructor Academy participant William Cobb, from Bark River in the Upper Peninsula, recently attended a course. He said the experience was well worth the drive. "The instructors in this program are second to none and the academy was an excellent learning opportunity."

Having adequate equipment on hand for academy participants to use and learn on is an ongoing challenge, but one that Cpl. Morey said several manufacturers and dealers have already answered.

The program requires six ATVs, six UTVs and six OHMs. Due to funding constraints, the DNR has to rely on loaned equipment for the academies. The DNR reaches out to ORV manufacturers and dealers to partner with the department to assist with the safety education equipment needs. Polaris Industries recently donated two UTVs (an RZR S and Ranger) with a retail value of roughly $21,000, and Yamaha has loaned two TTR230 motorcycles to the last four academies. Motorsports dealer Peacock Ltd. in Baldwin has also been instrumental in arranging loaner equipment.

Pat Brower walks participants through various recovery equipment and techniques for using it."We could not offer the ORV Instructor Academy without the help of our partners, and we're hoping to work with even more manufacturers and dealers in the future," said Cpl. Morey.

"Quality ORV safety education programming -- and having the right equipment and training spaces to do it -- means safer off-roading enjoyment for even more Michigan residents and visitors," he said. "That's a goal we can all work toward."

Anyone with suggestions about possible training locations or who would like to contribute to the DNR's ORV Instructor Academy may contact Cpl. Morey at 989-619-3784 or at

ORV enthusiasts who have an interest in volunteering their time to teach the DNR's ORV safety education program in their communities can begin the application process by calling the DNR's Marketing and Outreach Division at 517-335-3418 and request an application packet. Additional ORV Instructor Academies will be held in the future as funding and appropriate training locations permit.

Learn more about the DNR's outdoor recreation safety courses at