Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said Sunday night that the Habitat Bicycle Challenge’s cross-country summer trip presents “too great a risk” and that he can no longer “in good conscience” encourage students to participate.
The announcement came shortly after the HBC Student Board of Directors met Sunday to discuss the fundraiser’s future following the third serious accident related to the trip in three years. Dan Lewis ’09 remains in a coma after being struck by a vehicle during an HBC ride in July.
Salovey said he thinks the dangers of the summer trip outweigh the positive experiences and personal growth that riders gain. The Challenge, an annual fundraiser begun by Yale students 14 years ago, earned over $430,000 for Habitat for Humanity last year. President Richard Levin previously declined to comment on the safety and viability of the trip, which is not affiliated with the University, pending further discussions among administrators.
Jessica Bialecki ’08, one of HBC’s student board members, said the board currently has no comment on Salovey’s sentiments or the issues discussed in its meeting. Several student board members will attend a Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven meeting on Monday, Sept. 24, after which Bialecki said the board will be prepared to discuss the trip’s future.
Lewis was injured this summer as a group of HBC cyclists made their way through Kansas. In 2005, Rachel Speight ’06 died on an HBC trip when she was struck by a car in western Kentucky, and Alexander Capelluto ’08 died in a cycling accident in the spring of 2006 while training in West Haven for the upcoming summer’s trip.
Dan Lewis’ father, Hal Lewis, said he thought the trip could be redesigned to make it safer for participants.
“I support the cause, but it seems to me that maybe a shorter route that could be more carefully structured and monitored might be better,” he said.
Lewis’ father said he thought a “250-mile or 500-mile trip somewhere in New England” might be safer than the current 4,000-mile trip.
A number of students who have made the cross-country journey said that biking, especially such a long distance, has many unavoidable risks. But former riders contacted by the News, all of whom wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue, were divided on whether the prospect of future accidents should bring an end to the HBC trip.
One former rider said that while she believes that HBC leaders have done everything in their power to make the trip safe, it remains inherently dangerous.
“Three students in three years is a big toll for Yale,” the rider said. “That is more tragedy than any other group has produced, and it shouldn’t continue.”
Another former participant, who took part in one of the three HBC rides this past summer, said he felt threatened at many points along the trip when cars “and especially coal trucks in West Virginia” would pass, leaving little margin of error for the riders.
The student said he was surprised by how unsafe some situations were and that he wished the risks had been more clearly outlined by trip leaders. While the deaths that occurred on previous rides were mentioned, details of the accidents were not discussed, he said.
“Learning about how those incidents happened would have been nice,” the rider said. “I also think some routes weren’t planned as safe as they could have been.”
Still, he said, students should be allowed to make an informed choice about whether or not to undertake the journey, and the trips should not be cancelled.
Other students who had not participated in a Habitat trip said the deaths were enough to make them reconsider the trip’s value.
Ashley Gutierrez ’10 said her freshman counselor had encouraged her and her suitemates to go on the HBC trip.
“I considered doing it until I heard about the deaths,” she said. “It’s too much compromise. And there are other ways to help out.”
Bialecki said the HBC board will host an open forum on Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. in the Dwight Hall common room for “past riders and other stakeholders in HBC” to discuss the trip’s future.
Meanwhile, Hal Lewis said his son’s condition appears to be improving slightly.
“He’s in much better shape medically than he was originally,” he said. “He’s actually spent good portions of the last couple days with his eyes open, but we don’t really know what, if anything, he’s particularly focused on.”
He also said that while family members have not considered any legal action against HBC, they asked a lawyer to obtain a copy of the accident report to explore the possibility of an insurance settlement or the formation of a foundation to support Lewis’ accumulating medical costs.