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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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.

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.

"That was it, right there, as soon as I felt the off-road and the freedom," he said. "When I was 14 I got my first 4-wheeler, finally, and then rode 4-wheelers right up until I bought my motorcycle when I was 18."

Now, he calls OHVs his "off-road wheelchairs." The first thing you see when you approach Lathem's Ogden home is a rock-crawling FJ Cruiser parked on the curb, and the Polaris RZR he's customizing in the open garage. He's joined by his roommate and co-pilot, Alex Schweich, who befriended Lathem when he spotted him working on the RZR as it sat in a handicapped parking space outside the Weber State University dorms.

"I quickly learned that the only thing that was holding me back was what I was willing to try," Lathem said.

The crash that paralyzed Lathem wasn't his first, and it won't be his last. Deep scuff marks and dents on the RZR's roll cage are a testament of his most recent spill, as Lathem still feels the need to "get my wheels in the dirt" whenever he can.

Not if, but 'how bad'

There were nearly 200 ATV-related hospitalizations in 2005. Lathem was one of them.

It was the weekend before his high school graduation, and he was with classmates at the St. Anthony Sand Dunes in Idaho riding the motorcycle he had purchased two months earlier. With his 6 feet 3 inches and a powerful athlete's build, he stayed toward the back of the group to help other riders who got stuck.

His friends called him "Shrek," a gentle giant.

"I was way too tall, way too big," he says with a laugh. "I'd hop off in the sand and I could just pick motorcycles up real quick that were stuck and then just hop back on my own and go."

Lathem fell behind his own group, and rode to the top of a dune to let his bike cool. Spotting his friends heading in an arc some distance away, he decided he could cut across the sand in a straight line and intercept them. He set off at a reckless speed, and crested a dune much taller than what he had estimated.

"I saw it way too late," Lathem said. "I went off the top of it, a swan dive would be a good representation of it, and I hit the ground. … The bike came over and stuck my butt cheeks literally on the back of my head."

A chest protector stopped the bike's handlebar from piercing him, but the impact broke his rib, which tore through his lung and spleen.

As he lay in the bottom of the bowl, watching safety flags on the bikes of unaware riders bobbing by occasionally as he waited to be found, Lathem decided his life would be different, but it wasn't over.

"I knew that I was paralyzed, and I just accepted it and said, 'Let's start moving on. Let's start figuring out how I'm going to do things," he said.

Eventually his friends located him, and a medical helicopter whisked him to an Idaho hospital where he woke up three days later with his parents at his side.

His father told him later that the crash that paralyzed him may have saved his life. Perhaps it kept him from an even more dangerous crash, or other reckless riding. It was a wake up call to Lathem, who at the time was shopping for bullet bikes.

When it comes to OHVs, an honest rider accepts how real the risk of injury is, Lathem says.

"It's not if, it's when, and how bad. I knew that when I got on my motorcycle. I accepted it. I just didn't know I was going to take it right up to the edge of how bad it could get."

Prevention, education

As OHV program director for Utah State Parks, Haller works alongside the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and various counties to oversee OHV trail grooming and facility funding and maintenance, as well as helping with education programs across the state.

Now, in addition to the growing need for OHV safety education, Haller sees what may be a troubling new trend: increased alcohol consumption while riding.

"What I'm noticing is that alcohol seems to be an accepted behavior while operating an off-highway vehicle," Haller said. "That's something I believe we need to crack down on. ... We're really concerned about that, we're starting to look more closely at that and develop a strategic plan that would help us get that word out."

Last year, four of the eight OHV-related fatalities involved alcohol consumption, and there were three in 2012, Haller said.

There are a number of factors that contribute to OHV accidents, such as riders not knowing how to position their body weight on their OHVs when navigating turns and hills, or riding in areas outside their ability level, Haller said.

Lathem agrees.

One of Lathem's biggest messages to other riders is the same one he heard from his parents growing up: Wear a helmet.

"I can think of four helmets I've had to replace because of hitting them on rocks, hitting them on roll cages and cracking them," he said. "Those helmets have saved my life, I know they have."

In 2012, state parks officials noticed an uptick in accidents where riders weren't wearing helmets, and responded with a targeted campaign that seemed to help, Haller said. State law requires riders under age 18 to wear helmets, but it's optional for adults.

When it comes to kids on OHVs, Utah law requires riders ages 8 to 15 to complete a state-approved safety certification before riding OHVs. The programs saw more youth signing up, but they didn't always attend once the course got underway. The course now includes an online option, and riders can complete the program at their own pace rather than in one sitting.

"Sometimes that falls down lower on the priority list. We're competing with dance and we're competing with tee ball and soccer leagues," Haller said. "The online course providers allow those people to take one chapter at a time. ... They then can go out with their parents, because it's a social experience, and learn to operate properly with their parents."

Lathem took a similar course on 4-wheeling during childhood. The most powerful lessons, however, were the constant safety reminders, good practices and continuing education he got from family members.

"We always had to have our safety gear on. We weren't allowed to go jump on a 4-wheeler with a tank top and sandals on, you had to have your Levis and riding shoes," he said. "(The certification course) was a way for them to continue that safety aspect.)

Haller hopes educating youth will help them continue to ride safely into adulthood.

"I hope they take that passion and enthusiasm they may have learned, or that family experience they had, and share that with their children or grandchildren, and can take them to different areas around that state and are able to look at historic, scenic areas."

Loving life

"Everyone always asks, 'Do you regret getting paralyzed?'" Lathem said. "I can't say I do, because I love my life right now."

When Lathem graduated, he was eyeing offers to play college lacrosse on the East Coast, but instead accepted academic and leadership scholarships to Weber State University, where he was elected student body president. After earning a business degree, he bought a house not far from campus with a large, open kitchen and living room that's perfect for entertaining lots of friends.

Six months after he was paralyzed, Lathem completed a painful round of surgeries and rehabilitation. His doctor gave him a green light to ride again, and he got his 4-wheeler out of the garage.

"I was just going crazy for about six months," he said. "That was my escape. I would get out in the woods or up into the mountains, and for about six months I just hadn't been out. It was forever for me."

He learned quickly he would have to adapt his hobbies — he badly burned his ankle on a hot clutch plate without even realizing it.

"It was one of those things where you get off and you think, 'Well, I'm glad I'm paralyzed because that looks like it hurts,'" he jokes.

On Thursday he commemorated the ninth anniversary of his accident up at a family cabin near Bear Lake. He makes a point every year of recognizing the day that he calls his wheelchair's birthday.

"It changed me, it really changed who I was," he said. "It changed so much about how I approached people, how I interact with people, that it really feels like it was a birthday."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: McKenzieRomero