Since 2005, two Yale students have been killed, and one critically injured, while biking across America as part of the Habitat Biking Challenge, a charitable effort that raised nearly $500,000 last year for Habitat for Humanity.
The HBC is an admirable and inspiring project, one that each year motivated many sedentary students to gear up and devote their summers to teaching thousands about the work of Habitat. But, as has become painfully and tragically obvious, biking 4,000 miles across the country is very perilous.
As anyone who’s ever biked around New Haven can attest, even biking on familiar roads poses risks. Biking for long distances on roads unfamiliar even to a group’s leader is all the riskier, particularly when the bikers are inexperienced at long-distance riding, as most HBC riders and leaders are. These risks are implicit in the program, which relies on students to lead groups of their peers along highways and back roads across the nation.
The governing board of the HBC is meeting soon with the Greater New Haven Habitat chapter to discuss the future of the program. The News encourages them to acknowledge the project’s unacceptably dangerous nature and suspend the trips.
Yes, students are smart, and by now should know the risks of signing onto the trip, and yes, the decision to participate is a personal one. But it is Habitat that enables and encourages students to put themselves at risk by biking across the country. (And which does not, on its Web site, make any mention of the safety risks of the trip, nor does the site acknowledge that students have died while part of it.) The success of a fundraiser hardly seems a justification for the death of a friend.
Risks can never be fully controlled, but needless risks can be avoided. Muggings or kidnappings can occur anywhere, but that doesn’t justify walking alone in a bad neighborhood after dark or traveling to a war-torn region. Given the number of students injured on their cross-country journeys, including those students whose injuries were not publicized, the HBC project is akin to a charitable mission to a high-risk region. And just as we would look askance at Yale students organizing a trip to build houses in southern Lebanon — something Yale’s travel policy would not permit — we question now the decision to send students to bike across the country building houses.
As the board of HBC meets to discuss the program’s future, we encourage them to be creative and think of alternate ways to raise money and engage people in the charity. Maybe the group could take a shorter route in New England which the leaders can travel along to scout out before taking a group of bikers on it. Or maybe the group could drive across the country, taking advantage of their faster pace to reach out to more communities.
Whatever the group decides, the program in its current form is clearly not working. It’s unfortunate that America’s roads are not safe for bikers, but denying that reality and causing the deaths of more students would be the height of irresponsibility.