When will people get to bike down the volcano?
May 15, 2008
By most standards, 5 a.m. is a brutal hour. A cloud-choked, often intolerably cold volcano summit, cold coffee and the thought of gliding 26 miles downhill only add to the foggy confusion this hour generously offers. Yet thousands of people from across the globe come to Maui to do this very thing.
Never mind that sunrise at Haleakala is iffy. Apparently one of the most coveted sights on the planet, it’s completely hit or miss. If the weather is as ugly as you are sleepless, the National Park Service offers no refund. No matter, since you didn’t come here solely for sunrise. You came up here to fly.
Yet chance, weather, your health and the allegedly less than prudent practices of some tour operators may spell peril for the unlucky rider. In light of this, the County of Maui hired the consulting firm Kimura International to do a $250,000 study and make recommendations on the safety of Haleakala downhill bike tours. The study, which began in April, will help determine whether the county should adopt an ordinance regulating how the companies conduct the tours, among other things.
Kula Community Association president Gina Flammer says that she hopes the Kimura study will lead to industry regulation.
“We’re operating in a vacuum now,” she says. “There’s no oversight.”
The road leading up to the Haleakala summit boasts one of the steepest climbs in the world, going from zero to 10,034 feet in just 35.5 miles. Downhill bike riders find that they have to pedal very little during their descent down a road for which the word serpentine is an understatement.
A handful of companies offer guided and independent bike tours down this road. These tours have operated on Haleakala since the early 1980’s, but some Upcountry residents vocally question their safety.
Tour operators were once able to start their descent within the boundaries of Haleakala National Park, but a “safety stand-down” that began in October of last year in response to a rider fatality—the second that year—changed all that. Companies must now begin their tours just outside the national park boundary.
Haleakala National Park superintendent Marilyn Parris says park service officials are accepting public comment on their Commercial Services Plan policy until June 10, and will then consider whether to let tours operate in the park once again, albeit in a different capacity.
Maui County Councilman Mike Victorino estimates that, prior to the stand-down, bike tour companies brought about 20,000 t0 30,000 people up the volcano each month. At up to 125 bucks a pop, he says, that’s “major, major money” flowing into the local economy.
“It’s a very large industry,” Victorino says.
There’s no question the stand-down has hurt the industry. Phil Feliciano, who owns Cruiser Phil’s, says today his customer volume is 50 percent of what it was before the National Park Service prohibited bike tours from starting in the park.
All those bikes headed down the mountain every morning–and many companies operate two tours daily–can equal serious congestion. Over the years Upcountry residents have been complaining that the tours passing through Kula, Makawao and Paia cause nearly daily headaches for those headed to work in the morning.
“There have been complaints for many years,” Jimmy Muschietti, spokesman for Upcountry Citizens for Bike and Traffic Safety, says. Amid Upcountry citizens’ morning commute, Muschietti says the tours have provided “a steady stream of inconvenience” for people trying to go to work or get their kids to school.
Muschietti says he used to work on Lower Kimo Drive in Kula. In May 2005, he had close calls involving bike trailers stopping short right in front of his truck. Once, he says, he had to slam on his brakes so hard to avoid hitting a stopped bike trailer that his dog was ejected from the truck bed. Fortunately, the dog survived. But another occasion, hitting the brakes behind a stopped bike trailer caused him to get rear-ended.
Other residents have complained about being stuck behind slow-moving tour groups, trailers blowing stop signs and riders drifting over the double yellow lines.
Muschietti wrote letters to county officials and published pieces in the local media in an attempt to attract attention to the issue. He even tried to get the bike companies together to discuss possible industry-wide changes. Muschietti also filmed what he considered to be violations of state traffic laws, and says he has over 100 hours of bike tour footage, which his group is editing into a documentary that will soon air on Akaku.
But despite his complaints, Muschietti says he’s seen only sporadic improvements within the industry.
“They’re really trying,” he says of the companies, but that what he wants is consistency.
In his talks with Councilman Victorino over a possible ordinance that would guide bike tour industry policy, they talked about bringing in a “bike czar” in the future to enforce traffic and safety laws.
Victorino says he hopes that the final result of the study–which is not expected for at least a year–will help the industry, the county, Upcountry residents and tourists come to a “happy medium.
“We realize that many enjoy this terrific experience,” he says, adding that he hopes involved parties can come to a conclusion that will make the downhill bike tour industry “safe, prosperous” and “an industry that all of us can be proud of.”
One bike tour operator says things are already much better. Paolo Baricchi, who owns Maui Sun Riders, a company specializing in independent tours, says traffic woes are a thing of the past. Before the stand-down, he says, between 500 and 600 cyclists were headed down the mountain on any given morning. Barrichi says he has experienced the frustration of having to wait behind bike trailers when driving his kids to school.
Still, he says, the issue lies in part with the public’s attitude toward bicycle traffic.
“To be honest, there are a lot of rude people on the road,” he says. “They just don’t like bikes.”
Another tour company driver says Makawao residents would pelt passing cycle tours with donuts from a local bakery as they passed through town. That company now bypasses Makawao.
Of course, traffic woes are minor compared to the other major concern surrounding the industry: safety. At least 16 lawsuits were filed against tour companies since 1999 over injuries and deaths that occurred during a downhill tour.
Estimates of the frequency of injuries, depending on whom you talk to, range from one in 100 to one in 60. National Park Service Public Risk Management Specialist Travis Heggie wrote in a January 2006 report that he estimates that as many as half of injuries that happened within park boundaries in 2004 and 2005 were not reported—a claim bike tour company owners say is inaccurate.
“If you have to break out the first aid kit, it’s a reportable incident,” says Phil Feliciano. He says his company saw 17 injuries in 2007 and one so far in 2008.
In June 2006 Maui Police Officer Jeffrey Mahoney reported to Chief Thomas Phillips on numerous downhill tour safety risks. According to the report, Mahoney noted narrow shoulders, slow-going groups, too many riders per group and a failure to stop at the stop sign at Crater Road and Haleakala Highway—an intersection that once sported a yield sign, and some believe should do so once again. Mahoney’s recommendations included requiring a certain distance between each group, setting strict rider age and fitness requirements and equipping all bikes with lights and reflectors.
“[P]art of the problem is the attitude and driving behavior of vehicular traffic,” Mahoney wrote. “We must understand that this problem will not go away and that changes need to be made.”
Injuries occur due to a combination of factors, Flammer adds. There is an “inherent risk” when people wake up at two in the morning to bike down a volcano in at-times gnarly weather, she says. Throw in high winds, narrow shoulders, traffic and the shape of the rider, and you may have a high-accident likelihood. Though some companies have done better than others, she says.
Some riders, KCA’s Flammer and others have said, have not ridden a bicycle in decades or have a health condition that should preclude them from riding.
“It’s a nice tour when it’s done right,” she says. “It’s an asset for the visitor industry.”
State Senator J. Kalani English (D, Hana, Upcountry), who was on the County Council when the controversy first erupted, shares Flammer’s sentiment.
“This has been an ongoing situation for many years, and it is apparent to all that the bike tour companies need to come under some form of regulation to balance the public’s right to safe, secure streets and unhindered passage on our roadways,” English wrote in an email. “Conversely, the bike tour companies have a reasonable expectation to be able to operate. We have tried self-regulation for the industry, and this has failed. It is time to come up with a regulatory framework that protects all interest and provides first for the safety of our streets and then for the baseline expectations of the bike tour operators.”
In the wake of the stand-down some tour companies have beefed up their safety measures. Maui Sun Riders owner Paolo Baricchi says his company gives each rider an extensive safety briefing–and a laminated copy of state traffic laws–before sending them down the mountain. Screening riders for fitness is key.
“I think that a big part of the safety issue is the booking process,” he says. When visitors book tours through a hotel concierge, Baricchi says, there’s a higher likelihood that a rider tour companies would normally view as a risk might slip through.
“You have to have certain skills,” he says. “We always tell them, ‘You have to be confident on the bike.’”
Baricchi says that if his guides see a rider struggling, they can pull him or her off the road to ride in the guide van for the remainder of the descent.
Maui Sun Riders isn’t alone. Feliciano of Cruiser Phil’s voluntarily shut his company’s doors in the wake of the stand-down in order to refine safety policies.
“We decided that we would change the [rider] restrictions,” he says. They changed the minimum age from 12 to 15, he says, and set the maximum age at 65. He and other tour operators also require guides to attend a first responder course.
Attorney Jim Fosbinder, who has represented bike tour companies and is an avid rider, says the accident statistics show nothing particularly alarming.
“I would much rather ride my bike up or down the top part of Haleakala than in Midtown Manhattan,” he says. “You take a risk when you do anything.” MTW
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