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‘A formula for disaster’

Updated: 
February 21, 2014 - 8:20am

A 0.6-mile stretch of Queen Kaahumanu Highway in Kailua-Kona has bicyclists wondering how long it will be until a life is lost.

Though the highway has a designated bicycle lane between Makala Boulevard and Palani Road, bicyclists say they would rather go out of their way to loop through the Kailua-Kona town area than continue straight on the highway. That’s because of a somewhat “perfect storm” created in the area where there are two 35 mph southbound lanes, a bicycle lane, and a right lane for motorists merging on and getting off the highway combined with intersections on the right and blinding sun in the morning — all on an incline.

“It’s just a formula for disaster,” said Daniel Hodel, founder of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway Triathlon Club and member of the Hawaii Cycling Club board of directors. “I just fear that someone is going to have to be killed before the (state Department of Transportation) does anything about it.”

A handful of cyclists, including Hodel, contacted West Hawaii Today about their concerns following a crash in the area Feb. 13. The cyclists, who were in the area around 7:40 a.m. that day, said they heard screeching tires and saw an object, they soon determined to be a man, laying in the roadway.

Hodel and another cyclist, Kym Kiser, said the man was riding his bike when he was struck by a vehicle in the bicycle lane and the vehicle subsequently dragged the bicycle without its rider.

The Hawaii County Police Department confirmed the crash and said the man was transported to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu for further treatment, where he remained this week. West Hawaii Today’s attempts to reach the man via cellphone were unsuccessful as of press time Thursday.

The in-town stretch of bike lane was added during the Phase I widening of Queen Kaahumanu Highway completed in April 2009. Queen Kaahumanu Highway falls under the auspices of the state Department of Transportation. Attempts to reach the state Department of Transportation over a two-day period were unsuccessful as of press time Thursday.

Some of the cyclists, who said this isn’t the first close call, pointing to a June 2010 crash in the area that seriously injured Kailua-Kona resident James Gustin, expressed concern over the bike lane design.

“That stretch of highway, is just, gosh, trying to be polite about it, is just a ridiculous design,” Hodel said. “I don’t know how they arrived at it, they may have perfectly good reasons.”

Another cyclist, Franz Weber, a League Certified Instructor with Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii, said the design is the standard, but improvements could be made to improve safety and visibility for cyclists and motorists. He also noted that he has no issue cycling in the lane, but makes every effort to be aware of the traffic ahead and behind him as well as what is occurring at the next intersection.

“It is a very common practice all over the U.S. (to put the bike lane in the middle instead of toward the side) because they want it to be visible,” said Weber, who added he bikes between 8,000 and 10,000 miles a year. “It makes a lot of sense because if you put the cyclist path as far over as possible (to the right), where there are turning lanes, it can be a very dangerous spot. The bike lane (where it currently is) could be the most, the best bad solution there is.”

Weber, who hails from Germany, said other countries have implemented various means to increase the visibility of bike lanes including raising the bike lane a couple of inches above the main roadway and installing reflective raised pavement makers. On Oahu, he said, the lanes are painted green.

“There are different options,” he said.

Hawaii Cycling Club President Mike Wolf said the bike lane’s placement is not a common practice, though people may think it is. A redesign of the lane could be a solution.

Wolf said since the Feb. 13 crash he has been in contact with the state Department of Transportation, which told him it was investigating the issue with staff on the ground Thursday. He stressed repeatedly that while the area may be a state road, pointing blame will not help the situation.

“There’s no reason to point blame, we just need to make it a safer route,” he said. “Hopefully, the DOT state investigators can look at the situation and hopefully they can do something about it.’

Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii Executive Director Tina Clothier said the bike lane’s design is intended to increase visibility, but more can and needs to be done — such as has been proposed in the state Department of Transportation’s 2003 Bike Plan Hawaii to create separate paths that run adjacent to the highway.

“The ideal thing whether it is signage, striping or paint is that it really notifies motor vehicle drivers that there will be bicyclists there and we need to be looking for each other,” she said.

No matter what the solution eventually is, all agreed that cyclists and motorists can make an effort to avoid crashes and close calls.

That includes bicyclists following all laws of the road and being courteous to motorists, such as not passing on the right. For motorists, it means being aware of the bike lanes and that cyclists are another vehicle on the roadway.

“It’s not about blaming each other,” Weber said, “but how we can improve on each side.”

To increase awareness of cyclists and bike lanes, PATH plans in late March to hold an awareness day that will include waving signs, said Weber and Clothier. PATH also offers programs to help cyclists and drivers “share the road with aloha,” Clothier said.

Among the programs are bike education in elementary schools islandwide, which have taught 1,200 students since 2009, and free adult bike education classes to teach those older than 17, safety skills, how to avoid hazards, riding in groups, the rules of the road and more.

For more information on bike safety or the PATH programs, visit pathhawaii.org or call PATH at 326-7284.