Death, injury an annual reality in OHV sport beloved by Utahns

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 7:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, June 1 2014 8:16 p.m. MDT

Tyler Lathem shows off his Polaris RZR Saturday, May 31, 2014, as he talks about OHV safety. Lathem was paralyzed nine years ago while riding his dirt bike at St. Anthony Sand Dunes in Idaho.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

OGDEN — The moment Tyler Lathem opened his eyes, he knew he was paralyzed.

"It's one of those feelings you can't describe," Lathem recalls, scooting his titanium wheelchair closer to the kitchen table. "I could feel pain in my chest. I could feel my shoulders hurting and my back hurting, and I just couldn't feel any pain below the waist."

He remembers the relief he felt as he realized he could snap his fingers, lying in the bottom of a sand pit for nearly an hour after making a swan dive off a 30-foot dune. But he was bleeding badly, with a broken rib puncturing his lung, and no one knew where he was. He nearly died.

Nine years later, his life is wildly different than what he had imagined for himself as an 18-year-old athlete.

The thing that never changed, however, is his love for the freedom he feels riding all kinds of off-highway vehicles — a passion his paralysis couldn't take away. But each time he hears of a fatal OHV crash, or a rider who has been critically injured, his heart aches.

"For some reason I always feel like I might know them, I don't know why," Lathem said. "As someone who's been through a crash … I always try to figure out where they are, or what went wrong."

Injury, death in Utah

When OHV accidents happen in Utah, a phone rings in Chris Haller's office.

"It draws at me on a personal level," said Haller, OHV program director for Utah State Parks. "It's troublesome. I hope that we won't have any more, but unfortunately that might not be the case considering the popularity of the sport."

Eight OHV fatalities were reported to Utah State Parks throughout 2013. The deaths of a husband and wife riding in the San Rafael Desert over Memorial Day weekend already bring this year's total to nine, while a 17-year-old girl was hospitalized after an ATV crash in Weber Canyon.

"I'm extremely nervous," Haller said. "It's still too early to tell, but it saddens me because we already have more fatalities this year than what we had in all of 2013, so that really does provide a huge concern."

So far this year there's no pattern to the deaths, Haller said, though he noted some of the fatal accidents occurred when riders were using vehicles with off-road tires on asphalt, causing them to slip.

Between 1999 and 2011, 22 youth (ages 13 to 19) and 86 adults were killed in OHV accidents, according to the Utah Department of Health. Overall, emergency room visits for OHV injuries is down, falling below 800 in 2012 after surpassing 1,200 in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

The data covers a broad range of off-highway vehicles (including four wheelers, dune buggies, side-by-side vehicles and dirt bikes), but excludes snowmobiles.

Freedom and family

Registered OHV ownership in Utah has shot up 166 percent since 1998, according to a report from the Utah Division of Natural Resources and Department of Health.

Haller is delighted. He talks of the sport nostalgically, describing friends cruising a trail near Strawberry Valley and spotting herds of wild elk, or family members of all ages swapping stories on a ride through state parks.

OHVs can be the perfect way for families to explore Utah's unique backyard.

That's how it started for Lathem. He was 12 years old and trying to connect with his mother's new husband, when he was invited to ride along on a 3-wheeler with him.

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