Special Reports

Off-road fun comes with risk of a trip to the ER — or worse

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area bird watchers 7-16-08 David  Middlecamp
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area bird watchers 7-16-08 David Middlecamp The Tribune 2008

The teenager lay howling in the Oceano Dunes while park rangers and safety workers clustered around, trying with little success to make him comfortable.

His dirt bike stood nearby, its ID marker, a Confederate flag, snapped in two and impaling the sand like a ghost of Gettysburg.

Ten minutes earlier, the young man had been having a grand time on his dune bike, roaring around the sandscape, up one rise, down another, into a trough, over a bump.

But on one of his jumps he landed wrong. And in an instant his day of fun had turned into hours of pain and weeks of recovery.

The scene, witnessed by a Tribune reporter on a bright and balmy Saturday afternoon this year, is not unusual for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Park officials report hundreds of accidents every year and say unreported.

Twenty-two people have died from vehicle-related accidents at the Dunes since 2000, three of them children.

All-terrain vehicle crashes killed 130 children and sent 44,700 more to emergency departments nationwide in 2004, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and more than 2,000 children were killed in ATV crashes between 1982 and 2004.

The question of the safety of those who ride the dunes, as well as those who walk the beach, is a major factor in whether ATVs should continue to be allowed at the Dunes, and it hovers over the possible sale of the county's part of the Dunes to the state.

Numerous organizations are compiling information about the dangers of off-roading. Some are gathering information for litigation. Others — including national safety and consumer groups--are tabulating injuries and deaths in anticipation of legislation to make riding safer.

In a Letter to the Editor in The Tribune in August 2003, registered nurse Sheree Brekke described her informal tally enumerating "a partial list of the injuries that have resulted from riding on the Dunes since November 2002:

"Five head injuries with permanent brain damage; 13 spine fractures, one with quadriplegia, one with partial loss of function; and eight 'other' fractures associated with other injuries severe enough to be transported to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center," where she works in San Luis Obispo. "... If you are asking yourselves why the Off Highway Vehicle area of the Dunes is still allowed to exist," she wrote, "I can tell you to follow the money -- from the lobbyists who fund the politicians to the state park administrators who look the other way and justify their actions."

Those who love riding on the Dunes say accidents are unfortunate, even tragic, but argue that the rates of injury or death are worse on interstate highways.

But Colin Jones, manager of public and legislative affairs for Caltrans, said comparing traffic on the Dunes to the state highway system is "apples and oranges," and Caltrans has no such figures. "It wouldn't be valid," he said.

On the many Web sites devoted to off-roading, those who are injured are mourned. But it is not surprising to see someone write words such as "he died (or was hurt) doing what he loved"; or family members, friends and even the injured vowing to return and ride the sandy hills again.

To them, riding the Dunes is a near-religious pursuit, all the more so because the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is the last off-road area in California next to the ocean. Only here can riders pause on a rise in the otherworldly sand and gaze out at the vast and beautiful Pacific.

Indeed, one of the key arguments Dunes riders make is that they have been all but squeezed out. Many can still remember riding at Pismo Beach and Morro Bay before that was outlawed.

Nothing new about it

Riding on the Dunes goes back 100 years, although it did not become a beach-clogging craze until later.

Dune buggies began to appear in number in the 1950s, according to Norm Hammond, who wrote "Oceano — Atlantic City of the West." A dune buggy club formed in 1959 and, on the following Fourth of July, competitions were held.

"The dunes were wide open, uncrowded, and free," Hammond wrote. "It was a free and easy form of recreation."

Dune-buggying gained enormous popularity in the 1960s, added Linda Van Fleet, associate real property agent with the county's General Services Department.

However, the merger of motor vehicles and sand comes at a price -- and not only to the riders who take a deadly plunge in the sand.

A steady stream of cars and trucks rolls down the three miles of beach day and night. Families can take their youngsters to swim, and adults can go surf fishing, but they do so at their peril, despite the frequent 15 mph signs. "You can't even take a walk on the beach in your own neighborhood," said Samantha McTighe of Grover Beach.

The wall-to-wall humans at Pismo Beach, just north of the vehicular area and south of the Pismo Beach Pier, stand in contrast. Motor vehicles are banned there, and youngsters dig in the sand, play catch, throw Frisbees and swim.

The many families that visit the Dunes have to be constantly on guard.

"There are too many crazy people out there (going) way too fast," said Johnny Enos Jr. of Hanford.

Enos brings his wife and children to the Dunes, where he likes to ride and carry out a family tradition, like thousands of others.

No big problem

Not everyone agrees that the Dunes and beach are dangerous. Ross Currie, owner of the Splash Café in Pismo Beach, said some detractors "depict these people as something that they're really not. They're nice families."

On a summer weekend, Enos and his wife, LeAnna, watched their youngsters, Shelby, 14, and Kyle, 13, ride their bikes around an area near their camper that the parents had fenced in with yellow tape.

The Enoses wanted to keep their children within view, but they also worried about rogue riders zooming through the site if the tape were not up.

If Enos sees someone breaking the rules or going too fast, he will stop them and tell them in a friendly way how to do things correctly. Most often the drivers will cooperate, he said, although occasionally they will peel out and leave him with a face full of sand.

Enos' friendly policing is a common activity on the Dunes, where the number of park rangers can't begin to cover the tens of thousands of people, especially on a packed holiday weekend.

Still, word is getting around among some riders that the Dunes have become too dangerous. A post on a blog called South Bay Riders (www.southbayriders.com) from "Rick," who describes himself as an enthusiast, reads: "It is too common for people to die out there."

"In my experience," the poster wrote, "most of the ones that have been carted out of there have had problems within a couple of hundred yards of the beach. Too much speed is almost always the culprit, and often times, alcohol and/or drugs are involved."

Too much for rangers Some Dunes accidents have nothing to do with off-highway vehicles. Twice this summer, for example, beach-goers — one a 5-year-old child — have suffocated as the people with them allegedly tried to bury them in sand. Criminal charges have been filed in both cases.

But others are tied to the ATV culture. People have fallen into fires, portable toilets have been blown up and a woman was run over. Alcohol played a part in all of those incidents, according to testimony before the Board of Supervisors at various times.

However, parks officials say they are trying hard. Oldtimers will tell you that in the 1960s and '70s, the Dunes were a free-for-all, all the way down to Guadalupe. Now, not only has the riding area shrunk, but restrictions are in place.

Parental supervision is required for children younger than 14 in most situations, for example, and open alcohol containers are outlawed while riding. A safety course is recommended but not required.

Dunes officials note that they have tightened safety in recent years. Signs warn riders not to exceed 15 mph, for example.

The problem, critics say, is enforcement. They say riders regularly ignore the rules.