The dangers of riding at Hollister Hills

A rider zooms past at Hollister Hills Saturday, March 12.

– When Aaron Smith bought a 2003 Yamaha, he was eager to feel
the cool air hitting his face as he zoomed past the green fields at
Hollister Hills Recreational Park. But only several weeks after
buying his dream bike, the 20-year old suffered fatal injuries
after crashing into a tree on Feb. 12.
Hollister – When Aaron Smith bought a 2003 Yamaha, he was eager to feel the cool air hitting his face as he zoomed past the green fields at Hollister Hills Recreational Park. But only several weeks after buying his dream bike, the 20-year old suffered fatal injuries after crashing into a tree on Feb. 12.

Now, his cousin, 22-year-old Sarah Heredia, plans to petition the park asking officials to create tougher guidelines so that other lives are spared.

“I don’t understand how they sleep at night knowing these kids are dying there,” said Heredia. “Aaron’s death might have been prevented … there are things they can do to make it more safe.”

Smith died of blunt trauma, an investigation by the Santa Clara Coroner’s Office revealed. And although park officials don’t know exactly how fast he was traveling when he struck the tree, they estimate that it was faster than 25mph.

“Do we care? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we can be everywhere at once…or stop every individual who is speeding,” said Lt. Mary Pass, assistant superintendent at Hollister Hills, one of eight parks in California run by the State Parks and Recreation Division. The park only posts speed limits on its main roads.

“It goes back to parents teaching their kids about what’s important. If they don’t get safety gear, there is nothing we can do.”

The only safety gear currently required at all off-road parks in the state is a helmet, though other gear such as body armor exists for riders.But Heredia doesn’t know if wearing protective gear would have saved her cousin’s life. She is writing a letter to park officials urging them to hire more rangers to patrol the 6,600 acres of trails. Currently, two to three rangers are on duty at any given time, even on the weekends when attendance rises to 1,000 people over two days. The park would like to be able to put in more staff, but can’t afford to because of a lack of funds, said Pass.

Attendance at the park has nearly tripled since two decades ago, with close to 179,000 people visiting the park in the 2003 fiscal year.

Heredia would also like to see trails expanded to meet the growing popularity of the park and training made mandatory for all all-terrain vehicle and dirt bike riders. Currently, only ATV riders younger than 18 are required to possess safety certification, which consists of four to five hours of training that covers everything from negotiating hills and obstacles, such as trees, to teaching riders about safety gear. However, nothing similar is required for adults or children and teens who are supervised by a parent. Dirt bikes are also excluded from the requirement.

Hazel Hawkins did not have data available on how many motorcycle-related injuries they treat from Hollister Hills, but Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy reported an estimated 10 patients a month with similar injuries. There has been no visible increase, said Vivian Smith, a spokeswoman.

Aaron Smith’s death is the fourth at Hollister Hills since 2003, all but one of the fatalities were younger than 21. All occurred on a weekend, which is when most riders visit the state park.

Heredia, who grew up in Hollister, but now attends college in Colorado says she doesn’t blame the park for her cousin’s untimely death. But she won’t rest until she knows Hollister Hills is doing everything it can to prevent future fatalities.

“There are things they can do to make sure others don’t suffer like we have,” she said.

One of them is raising the day-use fee from its current cost of $4, to pay for additional rangers on the trails. Another is posting speed limits on trails beyond the entrance and main park roads – the only places where speed limits currently exist.

“The law (California Vehicle Code) only states that the speed limit must be reasonable and that’s decided by individual riders,” said John Horn, Superintendent of Hollister Hills. “Whether someone is going too fast depends on the road conditions and the ability of the rider and that can be difficult to ascertain.”

Asked if he believed that mandatory driving instruction would help prevent accidents, Horn admitted that the more practice riders got, the better prepared they would be to tackle the zig-zagging trails of any park. He also said riders would be better able to judge whether they have the skills needed to ride there.

Yet until new legislation makes it a requirement, Hollister Hills and other parks throughout the state are bound by the existing rules.

Shavaun Hageman is a friend of Heredia, who has been to Hollister Hills several times. The first time she went to the park, her bike spun out of control and landed on her foot, causing the 23-year-old to break her leg.

The accident could have possibly been prevented if Hageman had taken a safety course, but she didn’t know such an option was available, she said.

People entering the park should receive a handout that contains the information about classes, said Horn, although he did not know if there were other ways the park advertised the safety classes. He also added that shops selling ATVs and motorbikes were responsible for providing the information.

Meanwhile, Hollister Hills is working to seasonally open about 3,330 additional acres of trails. The park also turns people away when its parking lot becomes full, officials said.

“The intent of our operations is to provide a safe environment,” said Horn. “But the onus is on the operator (of an ATV) to be safe. The way the law of the sport has evolved is the responsibility is placed on individuals.”

The words are cold comfort to Heredia, who will spend the rest of her life wondering what Aaron would be like as he got older. She remembers the last time she saw him at an uncle’s birthday party and was impressed at how quickly her cousin was maturing.

“He told me not to worry about the little stuff and instead focus on things that mattered like family, pursuing your dreams and goals. He was on his way to being a man.”

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