Austin Gladden was just 6 years old when he was in a fatal collision at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area that left him with both physical and emotional scars.
As Gladden rode in an off-highway vehicle with his father and two family friends, a driver flew blindly over a dune, crashing into their vehicle and killing one of the family friends — 27-year-old Jerry Carter of Bakersfield.
Gladden escaped with a couple dozen stitches, and a lingering sense of trauma.
Now 19, he seeks solace several times a week riding through the soft sands of the dunes in his truck, alongside Hummers, quads and motorcycles that zip across the open terrain. Access is easy since he lives on the Nipomo Mesa.
“It’s community,” Gladden told The Tribune in an interview Monday. “Being out there and feeling like you’re not alone. Everybody could be having different issues. ... I know it is important for mental health for a lot of people.”
That peace is overshadowed by a dark cloud lingering over the Oceano Dunes.
With six deaths so far, 2019 has been the deadliest year on record for the state park near Pismo Beach, according to data going back to 2008 provided to The Tribune by the California Department of Parks and Recreation in a Public Records Act request and data gathered by The Tribune as far back as 1995.
Safety at the park has been a concern since the state took over management four decades ago.
While changes have been adopted over the years, State Parks officials generally say the activity is inherently dangerous and — aside from enforcement of a speed rule in parts of the dunes, DUI enforcement, and some required safety equipment — it’s up to riders to take safety precautions.
“We expect them to recreate safely,” Commander Kevin Pearce, who oversees park operations, told The Tribune in June. With these activities, “there’s going to be risks.”
As recently as July 5, State Parks director Lisa Mangat said that increasing enforcement operations “is not necessary.”
Two weeks — and two deaths — later, State Parks is starting to change its tune.
“As a district, we’re looking to see what we can do to support our visitors to make it more safe,” Commander Kevin Pearce, who oversees park operations, told The Tribune on Wednesday.
“It’s a tragedy,” Pearce added. “These families are impacted when their (relatives and) friends don’t return from the park. We’re here to provide recreation to people. No matter what that recreation is, we want it done safely.”
Fatalities stack up at OHV park near Pismo
More people have died in off-roading crashes at the Oceano Dunes in 2019 than any other year in at least the past decade — and the busy summer season is only partway through.
In May, 24-year-old Kristopher Mancebo of Tulare was killed.
This is the highest number of OHV-related deaths since 2008, the earliest year for which California State Parks provided records. That year was the second-most deadly on record, with five people killed in OHV-related incidents.
Since 2008, the number of annual fatal accidents has tended to be low. From 2016 to 2018, the number of fatalities each year was one or zero.
The number of reported crashes also fluctuates and doesn’t seem to correlate with an increase in severe or fatal crashes.
There were 254 crashes reported in 2015, the most of any other year. Nineteen of those were severe and four were fatal. In 2008 there were 228 crashes, 40 severe crashes — the most of any year reported — and one death.
Pearce says he can’t isolate any one thing that the incidents have in common.
“I can’t point to a cause like increased crowds, or reduced riding areas for air quality projects that created these collisions,” Pearce said. “We’ve seen these ebbs and flows and we’re, unfortunately, in one of those peaks.”
Is State Parks taking action to protect its users?
Restrictions at the Oceano Dunes have increased since the free-for-all scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s now a daily limit on OHVs allowed in the park. Parental supervision is required for riders under 14, helmets and safety belts are required, and driving with open alcohol containers or while intoxicated is now illegal.
Still, there is an atmosphere of personal responsibility: Safety training is recommended, but not required, for adults.
And while some areas, such as along the shoreline and around the camping area have a 15 mph speed limit that is enforced, the speed limit in the back of the dunes is to “never drive faster than is safe for conditions,” according to State Park publications, something that riders and park officials say is rarely enforced.
State Parks has taken notice of the surge in deaths, and that the Oceano Dunes is growing a statewide reputation as being problematic.
On Tuesday, the department told The Tribune that “we will soon be launching a targeted safety education and enforcement campaign promoting safe off-highway vehicle recreation and will also be working with our many partners in the community to amplify this message.
“We are also concentrating on robust enforcement patrols at Oceano Dunes focused on various unsafe riding practices such as impaired vehicle operation, properly fitted helmets, understanding whip and flag requirements and others,” an email from a State Parks spokesperson said.
When asked what all that actually means for on-the-ground operations, Pearce repeated something he told The Tribune in June: “I have a fixed number of staff here at the park,” including unfilled ranger positions.
What’s different now from the first time he said that, is that Sacramento is sending help.
Pearce said that State Parks will redistribute a few rangers from other parks in California to the Oceano Dunes during the next few weekends and further into the summer to help increase enforcement.
Currently, the SVRA has two to three rangers on duty during the day and three to four at night. With the additional rangers, night patrols will be performed by four to six rangers.
That’s a shift from Sacramento’s recent messaging.
Tragedy hit the park at a time that it was already under intense statewide scrutiny.
Four OHV-related deaths had occurred by June, and five people were non-fatally shot during a large, unpermitted concert in May that rangers didn’t know about until after bullets flew and they were called to the scene.
Then, staff of the state Coastal Commission recommended additional regulations be implemented, including increased vehicle enforcement operations — although their report says the concern was birds rather than the riders.
At the time, State Parks Director Mangat, said that increased enforcement “is not necessary.”
In addition to increased, albeit temporary, staffing, Pearce says State Parks is now considering things like messaging and new signs.
Some measures, he said, will be considered through the park’s ongoing Public Works Plan. Meanwhile, some riders are taking efforts into their own hands.
“Our staff is committed to safety. We’ll be out there contacting people when they are violating or having unsafe riding practices. We’ll have a good safety talk, and maybe scratch some citations,” Pearce said. “Visitors are taking responsibility for their actions too and there’s been an outpouring of support for keeping it open so there is more attention to safety and operations.”
Returning to the scene of OHV crash
That’s a focus that Gladden happily welcomes.
On July 1, 2006, he was violently shaken from a nap in the back of his family friend’s side-by-side by a truck crashing into them. Witnesses at the scene told him the truck came over the dune and landed on top of the side-by-side.
Gladden’s seat belt failed and he was thrown from the car, hitting and splitting open his head on the vehicle’s roll cage, before landing yards away.
He was lucky.
“The truck, after it drove over the side-by-side, tipped over,” Gladden said. This pinned the car in place.
Inside the side-by-side, Gladden’s dad’s bottom lip was split by his tooth going straight through it, and his back was seriously injured. The driver of the side-by-side had his jaw broken, and his bicep almost torn off, Gladden said.
Carter, who was riding in the front passenger seat, took the brunt of the impact. He died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital.
The driver of the truck, Sean Brandon Evans, would plead no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. He was sentenced to 30 days in San Luis Obispo County Jail, two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Gladden’s memory of the actual crash is hazy. He only recalls waking up in the sand with a figure standing over him, and then a blurry ambulance ride with the family friend who had been driving.
What has stuck with him was the knowledge that any day riding on the Oceano Dunes could be his last.
“There’s not a day that I go out on the dunes and expect to come back off the dunes,” he said. “Because I know anything can happen. It’s just like getting in your car or lighting up a cigarette — you don’t know what could happen.”
In response, Gladden has prioritized safety while riding throughout the park, and he wishes others would, too.
He keeps a handmade map in his truck showing areas he’s comfortable riding in. He’s added a siren to the truck that alerts people when he’s riding up a large hill.
And he always makes sure to have a spotter — somebody looking at both sides of the hill — before going over a large dune. That’s something he feels could have helped prevent his childhood crash.
“Nobody goes out there and wants to die,” Gladden said of his safety precautions. “Nobody wants to go out there and wreck or anything. I think it is just something that happens, but there are some measures that could be taken.”
Why are people dying? Equipment failure, high speeds
The causes behind this year’s fatal crashes vary.
Coroner’s reports for the first three dunes deaths of the year cited high speeds, equipment failures and driver errors as factors in the deaths. (Coroner’s reports were not available for the most recent three deaths because they are still being prepared.)
According to a San Luis Obispo County coroner’s report, Lichtman died April 19 when the Polaris RZR four-seater OHV she was in plunged over a sand dune with her, her husband and her child inside.
The car was leading a group of several other OHVs at speeds near 60 miles an hour when it came to a steep drop-off known as a “slip face” and went rolling end over end down the 25- to 30-foot dune, the report says.
According to the report, Lichtman, who was a passenger in the vehicle, was wearing a seat belt and a helmet at the time of the crash — but first responders found her helmet off when they arrived.
The helmet was an extra-large, while Lichtman was “relatively small,” according to the report.
Vang — who died a week after Lichtman — was riding an ATV in an area known as the “vent pipe” when he crested a 30-foot dune and on the way down applied his brakes, according to a coroner’s report.
The rear wheels of the ATV came off the ground, catapulting Vang from the vehicle, the report said. The ATV then continued down the hill, crashing onto Vang.
He was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash. It was crushed in the impact, according to the coroner’s report.
A month later, Mancebo became the third person killed at the Dunes when the sand car he was in flipped, ejecting him from the vehicle. He was driving about 50 miles an hour when his tire caught traction in the sand, which caused the vehicle to flip.
He was not wearing a helmet, and the seat belt he was wearing appeared to have failed, the report said.
What else can be done?
The suggestions for what could be done to improve safety in the area vary widely among riders.
In response to a Facebook query asking what Tribune readers think can be done to improve safety at the SVRA, many advocated for increasing the allowed area in which visitors can ride, saying that the decrease in riding area has crammed more people into a smaller space.
On the flip side, some call for the daily use and camping occupancy limits to be reduced, so fewer people are in the park at a time.
Some support raising camping fees to help fund more enforcement of alcohol laws and safety requirements.
Others suggested some form of licensing system to prove that riders understand not only how to operate their vehicles, but also how to stay safe.
Gladden said for the most part he felt safety was in the hands of individual riders, though he did think State Parks could implement some small changes that would make a big impact.
One would be providing a map and a garbage bag to everyone who enters the Dunes, he said. Additional enforcement and making sure State Parks has a more visible presence throughout the entire park would help, he said.
“They’ve gotten more now where down at the beach people know not to do donuts or pop wheelies or all these different things — or speed — because they know there might be a ranger down there,” Gladden said. “But up in the dunes, there’s really no enforcement.”
Gladden said he’d also like to see some of the more dangerous areas around the park being marked in some way to help warn newbies of their difficulty — akin to the black-diamond system used to designate difficulty levels for skiers and snowboarders.
Overall, he just wants people to be more aware of how their actions could have potentially disastrous impacts.
“It is fun,” Gladden said, “but I think safety should be more of a priority in people’s eyes rather than having fun.”
Correction: This story was updated on July 19 to correct an error about where on the beach a 15 mph speed limit applies.
Monica Vaughan reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship with engagement support from the Center’s interim engagement editor, Danielle Fox.