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Columbus renews plan to tackle reckless ATVs, dirt bikes on streets

 An unidentified ATV driver pops a wheelie while on Hamilton Road on Friday, July 31, 2021 in Columbus.
Columbus Police
An unidentified ATV driver pops a wheelie while on Hamilton Road on Friday, July 31, 2021 in Columbus.

Columbus city officials are taking a joint, no-tolerance approach to people operating vehicles recklessly and loudly on city streets, with a particular focus on ATVs and motorbikes and help from the public.

“This isn't just loud noise. This is dangerous, lawless behavior. And we want to make sure the public works with us,” said Columbus Police Chief Deputy Jennifer Knight.

The city is calling the initiative that will issue violators stiffer punishments “Operation Wheels Down,” which will build on strategies implemented in 2021 to address the problem. The issue has generated complaints in neighborhoods throughout the city.

At a Tuesday news briefing, representatives from city council, city police, the mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office said the improper use of the vehicles disturbs the quality of life. The sound is disturbing and behavior on the roads is unsafe, they said.

“Reckless ATV vehicles and drivers are not welcome in the city of Columbus. Let us be clear, the ear-piercing noise from reckless ATV driving will not be tolerated,” said Columbus City Councilman Emmanuel Remy.

Last year, the city implemented $500 to $1,000 fines. They said "dozens" of people were cited or arrested in 2021.

City Attorney Zach Klein said going forward, those cited or charged for offenses related to reckless operation will not be offered a plea bargain by city prosecutors.

“When (Columbus police) write a ticket, or cite someone for moving violations related to these sorts of dangerous operations and vehicles, they will note on the ticket to alert my prosecution team that this is part of a reckless operation dirt bike, motorbike or ATV. I have instructed my prosecutors that absent any evidentiary reasons, we will not plead those cases at all, each defendant must accept the full charge or take it to trial,” Klein said.

Klein also said his office will ask the court to impound their vehicles until the end of the case.

In addition to being a quality of life issue, it is a safety issue, Klein said.

“It's a threat to pedestrians. It's a threat to other motor vehicle operators. We have a duty to ensure that not only is the quality of life preserved in all of our neighborhoods, where people work so hard trying to raise their family, but we also have to ensure public safety,” he said.

The mayor’s office is expected to propose an amended noise ordinance in the coming weeks that makes it easier issue citations or charges.

“Every family deserves pace, peace and safety in their neighborhoods,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

Klein said his office will be looking into ways to give the noise ordinance teeth without applying it too broadly.

Police will be using intelligence gathering and relying on the public to call in incidents and identify drivers who slip by police in photographs posted to social media sites.

Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant said the strategy worked last year.

“Our residents they stepped up and assisted in criminal investigations by identifying offenders over social media, effectively making their neighborhoods safer. We will release photos of offenders again this year, and continue to partner with our community to identify and prosecute violators,” Bryant said.

She issued a warning to the joyriders.

“And what I have to say for those of you participating in this reckless behavior, consider this your warning. Our officers and law enforcement partners will be on the lookout for this dangerous behavior. You won't know where or when. This is not a game and we will catch you and there will be consequences to your actions,” Bryant said.

Knight had a warning for the drivers, too.

“Understand that if you get away from the police the night that you commit the offense, you better make sure we didn't get a photo video or nobody saw you because we're going to be investigating these after the fact arresting individuals and you will be charged with additional charges,” Knight said.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.