Ex-congressman dies in Utah ATV crash


For years I've collected stories about people around the West who get killed or seriously hurt in off-road driving wrecks. I got interested in the ongoing tragedy when an admirable young man I knew crashed his machine in a popular ATV playground. He was a math teacher who inspired one of my kids. He went off for a motorized weekend in the sand dunes near St. Anthony, Idaho, and came back to school in a wheelchair.

Saturday, in a famous ATV playground in Utah called Little Sahara, a likable "political maverick," Bill Orton, drove his ATV over a drop-off, crashed and died.

Orton served three terms in Congress (1990-1996) as a Democrat representing a conservative, usually Republican district. He was 60 years old and he left behind a wife and two kids. His death is also "a great loss" for his state.

The same day Orton crashed, a 49-ear-old woman, Karin Vandenberg, died in a Utah hiking accident. So better acknowledge: Non-motorized outdoor sports are also dangerous.

But the ATV culture is largely about taking risks. The salesmen hype the machoness of the machines. Many drivers use them for racing through difficult terrain, thrill-seeking, pushing the limits -- the scene on busy weekends when tens of thousands of off-roaders gather in Little Sahara. The psychology causes some ATV drivers to be irresponsible tearing up Western landscape and habitats for plants and animals. It also provides a rush of temporary freedom -- and too often it ends sooner than expected.


About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.