Yaroslav Oleynik, 05-20-05

Rash of off-road-vehicle accidents on public arteries takes lives

By KYLE HOPKINS Anchorage Daily News

Published: August 17th, 2005

WASILLA -- Yaroslav Oleynik was a serious boy who worked on a farm and wanted to build houses.

His mother, Anna Oleynik, stood in the family's unfinished garage Friday on Fairview Loop and, speaking in Ukrainian, recalled the short life of her 16-year-old son. He died May 20 in a dirt bike accident at the intersection of the Parks and Palmer-Wasilla highways.

The family, originally from the Ukraine, moved to Alaska from Sacramento, Calif. Yaroslav was one of 12 siblings.

Oleynik's daughter Yelena Obukhovskiy, 19, translated. Oleynik looked down and pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes watering as two of her youngest boys played in the yard.

"I never thought it would happen in our family," Obukhovskiy said.

Police say Yaroslav was crossing the Parks Highway when his dirt bike was hit by a Dodge Durango. Similar accidents this month carved holes in two other Valley families when two 15-year-olds, one from Wasilla and one from Willow, were killed in separate four-wheeler collisions within the span of a week.

So far this year, at least nine Alaskans have died in dirt bike and ATV accidents. Authorities attribute many of the deaths, particularly in Bush villages where four-wheelers can be more common than cars, to four-wheelers rolling over or striking obstacles.

But all three fatal accidents in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough this season involved off-road vehicles colliding with cars as they entered public roadways.

"I think this is the emerging problem," Wasilla Police Chief Don Savage said.

As the Valley population grows and old ATV trails disappear, he said, the region still has the same "drive wherever you like" reputation among Anchorage and local riders.

And as families like the Oleyniks torture themselves with questions of "what if," other parents and the people in charge of regulating ATV and dirt bikes are asking "what now?"

With nearly 6,000 ATV deaths on record between 1982 and 2003 in the United States, the national Consumer Product Safety Commission formed a team in June to investigate whether to change federal guidelines for how four-wheelers are made or used.

The group will look at things such as mandatory training for riders and a switch on youth-sized four-wheelers that parents could use to restrict the machine's speed, commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

Elsewhere, North Carolina lawmakers this year debated a ban on children under 8 driving ATVs; Kentucky safety advocates called for helmet requirements for four-wheel riders younger than 16.

Last year in the Mat-Su Borough, the Alaska Trauma Registry counted 44 people, or about a third of the statewide total, hospitalized by ATV accidents, coordinator Martha Moore said.

But police, including Wasilla traffic cop Jentry Crain, also say they hear about countless near misses. In Alaska, riders are required to stop before crossing roadways or driveways, which they can legally cross at a 90-degree angle, Crain said.

Instead, he said, riders often use the dip right before many driveways as launching pads for jumps, and some cars may never see them coming. Police and troopers say that for their part, people driving cars and trucks can help avoid collisions by staying alert and driving the speed limit.

Savage said the number of deaths this season doesn't necessarily surprise him. "I think we've been very fortunate that we haven't had more," he said.

At the Oleyniks' home in Wasilla, Obukhovskiy described the night before her brother died. Yaroslav had been up late, talking with his 14-year-old brother, Sergey. Though Yaroslav often kept to himself, he and Sergey were close and were deep in conversation about their future plans and what they'd one day do for a living.

Other members of the family had been talking about moving back to California to be closer to relatives, but Yaroslav was adamant that he would stay in Alaska where he could hunt and fish, Obukhovskiy said, hopefully working on houses and building frames.

The next morning, he rode his dirt bike to a car show at Wasilla High School. His father, Vasiliy Oleynik, who repairs jewelry and watches in Anchorage, told Yaroslav to be back by 2 p.m.

About 2:30 p.m., police responded to an accident at the intersection of the Parks and Palmer-Wasilla highways. Yaroslav had been crossing the Parks when his dirt bike and a Dodge Durango collided, police said.

Crain, the traffic officer, said no citations were issued; no way could the driver of the Durango have anticipated the accident.

Vasiliy Oleynik was driving by the scene when he recognized his son's dirt bike on the road. He stopped to find out what happened.

That's how he found out his son had been killed, Obukhovskiy said.

Ten weeks later, late on Aug. 3, Cole Blakely, 15, was a passenger on a four-wheeler driven by a 14-year-old girl when the ATV tried to cross the Parks Highway at Pittman Road, according to an Alaska State Troopers report.

An AMC Eagle collided with the four-wheeler, sending both teens to the hospital. Blakely's aunt, Rebecca Ling, said Cole had just become an uncle for the first time and had been talking about joining the Army after high school.

He died the day after the collision.

Within a week, David Patterson, also 15, was driving a four-wheeler near Willow-Fishhook Road. Described by friends as outgoing and athletic, and the class clown, Patterson was headed to football practice, according to Shawn Hannah, program director at North Star Bible Camp of Willow, which the boy had attended over the summer.

About 4 p.m., according to troopers, Patterson's four-wheeler emerged from behind the thick brush along the road and was struck by a minivan driven by a man who Hannah said teaches guitar lessons at the camp.

A trooper at the scene said Patterson appeared to have been wearing a helmet but lost it in the crash. A memorial service was planned last Sunday at the Bible camp.

Yaroslav Oleynik's family said that, months later, the loss of their son has grown no easier to bear.

At their home Friday, Anna paged through a scrapbook of photos of her son while her 10-year-old daughter, Natalia, stood by.

Anna pointed out different photos --Yaroslav on his dirt bike, looking serious. And a younger Yaroslav, smiling and holding a giant starfish during a visit to Santa Cruz, Calif. His eyes are the same shade of light blue, almost gray, as his mother's and sisters'.

Toward the end of the scrapbook are photos from his funeral, pictures of Anna and Vasiliy standing over Yaroslav's cherry wood coffin, their hands on his head, their own heads tilted.

Anna Oleynik has a hard time seeing other boys on dirt bikes and four-wheelers around town, she said. Sergey has caught himself asking where his brother is before remembering what happened.

Vasiliy may be taking it the hardest.

"He kind of blames himself: 'Why (did) I tell him to come at 2?' " Obukhovskiy said.

The family had been working on additions to their house so everyone could fit comfortably. Young and strong, Yaroslav had been Vasiliy's helper as he worked on expanding and remodeling their home. But since the accident, Obukhovskiy said, her father no longer seems interested in finishing the building.

Contact reporter Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com or call 352-6710.


ATV education ...

ATV training courses are held several times a month between Palmer and Wasilla, according to John Rogan, a local instructor for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America.

Most of Rogan's students take the four-hour course after buying a new ATV. Dealers offer rebates for anyone who completes the training. Still, there are only a few instructors in the state, Rogan said, and more are needed.

To learn more about four-wheeler safety, teaching courses or classes, call 1-800-887-2887 or visit www.atvsafety.org.