The Polaris Ranger RZR and other side-by-side models are increasingly popular among all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts. Two Medford firefighters were riding a Polaris when they died in a crash Thursday.

ATV crashes spur renewed safety push

The deaths of two Medford firefighters in an all-terrain vehicle crash last week reminded fans of the rugged motor sport to be careful as they head out to enjoy coming summer weather.

"Somebody out trying to have a fun day can turn tragic," said Steven Croucher, president of the Motorcycle Riders Association, who also noted that dangers abound for rafters, mountain climbers, skiers and others who enjoy the region's outdoor recreation riches. "It's part of going outdoors and experiencing the environment."

In Coos County over the weekend, two Medford residents were injured in separate ATV accidents at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a popular beachside riding spot. A Coos Bay teen also was injured when she was thrown from a two-person ATV near another popular off-roading area about 10 miles east of Coos Bay, the Coos County Sheriff's Department reported.

About 1:15 p.m. Saturday, Cody Simpler, 17, of Medford was making a video of ATV stunts when he landed a jump harder than expected, breaking the vehicle's suspension and his wrists, Coos County sheriff's Sgt. Pat Downing said. Simpler was treated and released at Bay Area Hospital in Coos Bay.

At about 6 p.m. in the same area, Tasha Puhl, 34, of Medford, and Dan Pardovich, 40, of Salem, collided head-on at the crest of a dune. The two were climbing opposite sides of the dune and didn't see one another until they crashed. Both were wearing helmets, but Puhl suffered facial injuries and was taken to Bay Area Hospital, Downing said.

At about 4:40 p.m. Saturday, Coos County deputies were summoned to a crash of a Polaris Ranger two-person ATV in the Blue Ridge Road area. A 17-year-old Coos Bay girl was ejected from the vehicle and suffered serious leg injuries. The 20-year-old driver, Jesse William Pace, also of Coos Bay, was treated for injuries, too. Investigators said alcohol appeared to be a factor in that crash.

Downing said when the weather is good, Coos County deputies typically respond to three to four ATV crashes over a weekend, but this was the first accident authorities there had seen that involved the increasingly popular side-by-side models.

Medford firefighters Gale Gurr, 37, and John Wells, 51, were in a Polaris Ranger RZR when it tumbled down a steep slope in the Forest Creek drainage on Johns Peak Thursday, killing them both.

"They are increasingly prevalent on the dunes because whole families can use them," Downing said of the vehicles with two seats.

"They are safe to an extent, but they can be overdriven," he said, noting that the department has one, a Yamaha Rhino, used to carry officers and seize marijuana plants during forest drug busts.

Kevin Primerano, general manager of Naumes Oregon Motorsports in Medford, sells the Rhino and said it is the most popular-selling machine on his lot.

He said the Rhino revolutionized the side-by-side utility vehicle market, which had primarily served farmers and ranchers with heavy, slow-moving vehicles, by introducing faster, more powerful machines that could be enjoyed by sportsmen.

"It is a safe machine, but every machine has limits," Primerano said.

He said he has a Rhino that he takes to the dunes regularly and has "never felt unsafe."

He described the handling of the side-by-side vehicles, which generally have price tags starting at around $10,000, as more like a Jeep or small truck than other quads or motorcycles. They also have car-like seats, seat belts and a roll cage to protect occupants.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said Wells and Gurr were wearing safety belts and other recommended safety equipment. He didn't release any other details about the investigation into the fatal accident Monday.

Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jim Whittington said the agency was assisting with the investigation and believed the crash happened on BLM property, where riding is allowed on designated roads and trails. Over decades of use in the Johns Peak area, however, a complex network of unofficial trails created by riders has grown up across federal and private property, so riders might not always know whether they are on designated trails or what the rules are.

The BLM's environmental impact statement on off-road use in the area will consider those unofficial trails and might recommend closing some of them, Whittington said.

"Our thoughts go out to the families and we hope this doesn't happen again to anyone else," he said.

He said riders can call the BLM office at 618-2000 for information about good places for safe riding and current restrictions, which are particularly important during fire season.

The All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute, a nonprofit division of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America sponsored by ATV manufacturers, stresses that riders must always wear a helmet and other protective gear. They should never ride under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Riders should stay on designated trails at safe speeds and avoid public streets where they could collide with cars. Kids younger than 16 must be supervised and should have ATVs that match their size and ability.

Adult supervision of riders younger than 16 is now required by Oregon law, as is a properly fastened helmet. Under the law approved in 2007 and being phased in over the next seven years, riders of all ages eventually will be required to complete safety training and earn an ATV education card.

The safety institute now offers periodic training courses for new ATV owners and others at the Jackson County Sports Park in White City. For information, call 800-887-2887.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail

Share This Story