Hell on Wheels

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Steering with tiny movements of his chin, 13-year-old Billy Strenge rolls his motorized wheelchair onto the deck outside his family's trailer home and lifts his face to the sun. Squinting, he looks out across the Minnesota cornfields that stretch as far as once did his hopes. His sister Liz brings out a snack of beef jerky, holding a strip up to Billy's mouth as he bites off a taste, chews it carefully and opens his mouth for more. Summers in Klossner, Minn. (pop. 60), used to be seasons of perpetual motion for Billy—bailing hay in the family's fields, tinkering with engines in his dad's lawn-mower repair shop and bouncing around on his Honda all-terrain vehicle.

That life ended on June 24, 1989. Billy was out for a ride with a friend when the 276-pound ATV flipped, skewering Billy's mouth on the hand brake, knocking out his front teeth and piercing his palate. The impact whipped his head upward, snapping his spine and ripping his spinal cord. By the time he hit the ground, Billy was paralyzed from the shoulders down, barely even capable of breathing on his own.

Billy Strenge was one of 58,200 Americans injured last year while riding ATVs. Nearly 300 more were killed. All told, almost half a million people have been injured on ATVs since 1982, 40 percent of them under age 16. "These are death traps unleashed on unsuspecting families," says Dr. Mark Widome of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "ATVs are one of the most serious product-related threats to the health and well-being of our children."

Widome's warnings are not new. As the balloon-tire vehicles increased in popularity in the mid 1980s, so did the toll of deaths and injuries (PEOPLE, Feb. 23, 1987). The introduction of four-wheel ATVs, which looked more stable than the old three-wheelers, did little to stem the carnage, and in 1988 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission took action. Manufacturers of the vehicles signed a federal consent decree aimed at protecting young riders. The five manufacturers—all but one are Japanese, although ATVs are rarely sold in Japan—agreed to stop marketing adult-size vehicles to children and to halt production of the three-wheelers.

Even so, little has changed, except that all new ATVs now have four wheels. There is still no stability standard for the vehicles, which, engineers say, have a high center of gravity and thus a tendency to flip. In addition, a nationwide undercover survey last fall by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that a majority of ATV dealers were ignoring government-mandated age restrictions. "Dealer personnel were either not giving the proper age recommendations to consumers or, in their zeal to make a sale, were misrepresenting the age guidelines and recommending adult-size ATVs for children under 16," says commission chairman Jacqueline Jones-Smith, who has scheduled meetings next month to review the latest ATV findings.

The ATV manufacturers say most injuries involve operator error—speeding, drinking, riding with passengers, riding on pavement—and point out that injuries have declined by about a third from the 1985 peak of 85,900. Consumer groups are unimpressed, arguing that more than 58,000 injuries a year and an average of almost a death a day are still unconscionably high figures. The Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Public interest Research Group are petitioning the government to set stiffer safety standards for four-wheelers, recall all three-wheelers still in use and completely ban the use of ATVs by children under 16.

For Billy Strenge, however, the recall drive comes too late. Followed by one of the nurses who stay by his side 24 hours a day, Billy nudges his wheelchair forward and cuts across the lawn to a large storage shed. His father hauls out the faded red 1981 Honda ATV, its fender broken. Dave Strenge traded a snowblower for the three-wheeler in 1988. He now pushes it close to the grassy spot where the vehicle landed the last time Billy rode it. That was a Saturday afternoon, and Billy and his friend Andy Falk, 12, were feeling bored. Billy and Andy should not have ridden together, but they did. "There was nothing on TV, so we decided to go three-wheeling. We used to go down this road all the time," Billy says, his hazel eyes tracking the accident path.

"I was going about 14 miles per hour," Billy continues, pausing to catch a breath from his respirator. "Andy started falling off. The whole thing probably happened in less than five seconds. I didn't have time to brake. I flew off. When I hit the ground my mouth was numb. I looked over at the three-wheeler, and it was upside down, and that was it, I blacked out."

Andy, shaken but not seriously hurt, ran to a neighbor's to summon help. Dave and Carol Strenge and their other children-Liz, now 16, Mary, 15, and Tommy, 10—were selling food at a 4-H booth at a history festival in a nearby park when a ranger located them. The family went to the local hospital where they found Billy, his face covered with blood. "I was frightened," says Carol, 36, an insurance agent. "All they told us was that there were spinal injuries." A chopper evacuated Billy to the University of Minnesota Hospital. By the time the Strenges reached the Minneapolis medical center, doctors had found that Billy had fractured his second vertebra.

He woke up the next day. "It really dawned on him that he wasn't the same when the nurse lifted his arm," says his mother. "He saw it move but couldn't feel it." He grew even more alarmed when four different pastors visited him in a single day. Billy's jaw was wired shut, but he used an alphabet board to telegraph his panic, blinking once for "yes" and twice for "no" as his parents pointed to letters. "He spelt out D-I-E," says Dave, 36. "He thought he was going to die because so many pastors came in. We reassured him that he wasn't, but he kept shaking his head and crying."

After three weeks Billy was moved to Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul to learn to live as a quadriplegic dependent on a respirator. Tormented by his losses, at first he talked back to the nurses and resisted training. But the staff persisted, and gradually Billy learned how to operate his wheelchair and to use a mouth stick to write, turn the pages of a book and even wipe dishes. Last February he came home. "He was excited," says his father, "figuring everything's fine. After about a week he got depressed—it set in that all he did was change surroundings and get different nurses."

So far, insurance has paid Billy's medical bills. Nursing care alone totals $4,264 a week. A team of RNs and practical nurses rotates shifts caring for Billy. Each night, one sits at a small desk next to his bed, watching the dials on his respirator, checking his vital signs and rolling him over to prevent bedsores. In the morning they put Billy into a fresh body stocking and check the custom-molded braces that keep his legs, arms and body from curling permanently into a fetal position. Every four hours a catheter is inserted to empty his bladder. As his full-time companions, the nurses often see behind the wiseacre humor that helps Billy through the day. "He gets real angry when we have to wash his hair or brush his teeth. It's a loss, something he can't do for himself," says nurse Monica Weaver, Billy's case manager. "What teenager wants three different nurses a day fussing over him? One morning he said, 'I don't know if I want to do this anymore,' and he cried. I cried too, and I told him he can do more as time goes on."

On a wall in Billy's bedroom, opposite the baseball pennants and stuffed animals, is a drawing of a winter scene inscribed with an inspirational quote from another paralyzed accident victim: "Before there were ten thousand things I could do.... Now there are nine thousand. I could dwell on what I lost—but I prefer to focus on the nine thousand things left."

Prior to the accident, Billy and Tommy shared a bunk bed in the basement. Today Tommy is uncomfortable sleeping downstairs alone and often curls up at the foot of Billy's bed. The boys used to romp and wrestle; now Tommy treats the 347-pound wheelchair as a part of Billy, pulling and pushing at it until his big brother mutters, "Stop it, brat." They still play Nintendo together, thanks to a control panel operated by Billy's mouthpiece.

Billy leans his chin forward and drives outside to watch Tommy and some friends playing tag and catch. Dave wheels the ATV—which the family keeps as evidence for its multimillion-dollar suit against American Honda—back into the shed where it gathers dust. Walking toward the house, he passes the sign DAVE'S REPAIRS. Billy had hoped to join his dad in the business and someday add his name to the sign. Instead he has turned his hopes to college and a career that takes brains, not brawn. Dave is still at a loss to explain the accident. The Honda had looked as innocuous as a child's pedal toy. Billy was an experienced dirt-bike rider and had handled smaller ATVs. "The way Billy drove, we didn't worry," says Dave. "He wasn't one to go hotdogging." The prior owner told the Strenges he'd never received any safety warnings about ATV instability from Honda. "If they'd had a recall, I'd have sent it back," says Dave. "But we avoid the what-ifs. You could drive yourself crazy second-guessing."

"I'm sure long before June of 1989 the manufacturers knew they had safety problems," says Carol, walking over to her son and swatting away the fly that he cannot feel on his lifeless arm. "How could they keep selling them? I would not be able to sleep at night if I knew even one boy got hurl like Billy."

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