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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, January 26, 2002

Drivers demanded new limits in 1936

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 •  Answers to your questions about traffic cams

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Controversies about speed limits are nothing new in Hawai'i. One of the first ones occurred more than six decades ago, in 1936, when drivers wanted the government to raise highway limits from 35 to 45 mph.

The request, which came from rural O'ahu residents worried about how long it took them to drive into town, touched off heated political debate, letters to the editors and months of discussion.

The move was opposed by the Honolulu Traffic Safety Commission, police and others who worried that it would cause an increase in accidents.

At one point, the debate became so heated that Police Chief William Gabrielson had to go public with the "leeway factor" that his officers used in citing speeders, admitting that drivers in the country were allowed to go as much as 8-10 mph over the limit while those who exceeded the speed limits in the city by even a few miles per hour were subject to arrest.

Meanwhile, newspapers editorialized that raising the limits would be dangerous. "What it means, if passed, is not 45 miles an hour driving, but 55 and 60 miles," said one editorial. The writer argued that a better solution would be to improve the quality of local roads.

At another point, the bill appeared ready to pass the Board of Supervisors on its third and final reading, only to be derailed by a series of spectacular auto crashes that killed five people in one week. That decision to postpone the higher limits drew praise from one writer who said "any law that outrages the public conscience, as this one has, should be abandoned outright without apology to any minority group endorsing it."

Finally, after nearly four months of controversy, the higher speed limits were passed and signed into law by Mayor Fred Wright.

Except for a brief period during World War II, the 45-mph limit has remained in effect in most Hawai'i since then.