Safety fear could push bike tours off summit
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WAILUKU » A preliminary assessment does not seem to bode well for bicycle tours at Haleakala National Park.
Park Superintendent Marilyn Parris said the draft assessment by a federal safety panel found bicycle tours pose among the highest risks of recreational injury and accidents in national parks.
Parris suspended bicycle tours in the park on Oct. 10, after a couple of fatal accidents, and is planning to arrive at a decision about the future of the activity at Haleakala by mid-March.
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WAILUKU » A federal safety analysis team has found that bicycle riding tours down Haleakala pose among the highest risks of recreational injury and accidents in national parks -- more than river rafting, mule riding down the Grand Canyon or climbing at Mount Rainier in Washington, said Haleakala National Park Superintendent Marilyn Parris.
"It is a high-risk activity," Parris said.
Parris said the analysis team, which conducted the study last year on Maui, made a presentation of its draft findings this week at a park service Pacific West Region Board of Review meeting in Oakland, Calif.
Parris, interviewed by telephone in Oakland, declined to say what the team or board has recommended.
She said the team still needed to complete a final document after responding to some questions posed by the board.
"It would be inappropriate of me to share it right now, and it would be premature," Parris said.
Parris said the draft analysis included a downhill bicycle accident rate, risks associated with downhill bicycle riding, and what the park might do to reduce the risk.
Parris, who plans meetings with Pacific West Regional Director Jonathan Jarvis and park officials in Washington, D.C., has the authority to make a final decision on bicycle tours on Maui.
Parris suspended the bicycle tour activities in the park on Oct. 10, following the deaths of two riders in separate accidents at Haleakala in 2007.
The suspension halted tours that started at about the 10,000-foot summit and rode down winding roads to the ocean.
Parris said she plans to make a decision by mid-March on the future of bicycle tour activities.
Meanwhile, some bicycle tours have continued the activity just outside the park entrance at the 6,500-foot level.
The team's study appears to contradict a summary by Maui attorney James Fosbinder that concluded that bicycle tours down Haleakala were relatively safe and had a low rate of accidents.
Fosbinder's report said that during the past 25 years, bicycle operators have taken about 90,000 riders a year on the 36-mile downhill tour.
Fosbinder, who represents the Maui Bicycle Tour Association, made up of five businesses, said there have been three bicycle fatalities in the past 24 years.
Fosbinder, interviewed yesterday, said the federal analysis team seems to have picked recreational activities that are "pretty close to as perfectly safe as possible."
He said, for instance, people wear life jackets when river rafting, and most people climbing Mount Rainier are walking on a hillside.
Fosbinder, who is a cyclist himself, said the question is whether bicycle tours are more dangerous than bicycling.
"There is no evidence that it is more dangerous than other bicycling," he said.
Fosbinder said bicycling is on average a healthy activity and helps to reduce heart attacks.
"There is a risk in doing nothing if you just sit around and watch TV," he said.
Within a one-year period spanning 2006-07, a woman died after riding off the edge of the road, and a man died of a heart attack after hitting his head in a bicycle accident, according to park officials.
Last year a bicycle tour leader failed to get around a turn and careened into lava rock, suffering severe leg and hip injuries and head lacerations.
A 13-year-old boy who also failed to make a turn suffered cuts to his knee and side.
In 2005 some 19 bicycle tour businesses operated on Haleakala, attracting an estimated 79,000 riders in 2005, the park said.
The businesses were paying about $250 for an annual commercial use authorization, and an additional $5 per person entrance fee.
Park officials said the number of accidents is down from 10 years ago due to the imposition of safety conditions and restrictions.