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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 6, 2004

Many pedestrians view O'ahu streets with fear

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Down at street level, everything looks more threatening: the cars, the buses, the sport utility vehicles, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

Nancy Koizumi of Kapalama leads a walking group from the Lanakila Senior Citizen Center in a stroll around the neighborhood. Many participants say they feel safe walking with the group, but note that traffic, a lack of sidewalks and uneven pavement often create hazards.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Just ask the people who are walking.

"It's like we're invisible. Physically and metaphorically, we're powerless," says Marsha Meckler, a Kaimuki resident who walks for exercise at least three times a week.

"A lot of people don't see you," adds May Ching, who walks two mornings a week with a group of seniors at the Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center. "And if they do see you, a lot of them don't slow down. They don't seem to care."

Statistics back them up.

During the past 14 years, an average of two pedestrians a day have died or been injured because of motor-vehicle collisions in Hawai'i. That's more than 350 people dead and nearly 10,000 hurt. Eighty-six percent of the fatalities occurred while the pedestrian was crossing a street. Thirty-five percent of those were hit in a crosswalk.

It's not getting better. So far this year, seven of the 15 traffic fatalities on O'ahu have been pedestrians, police said. Only one was in a crosswalk. Three weeks ago, two men were killed in accidents less than 24 hours apart on a stretch of Kamehameha Highway near Pearlridge Center. Both were jaywalking.

Police and others say both pedestrians and drivers need to share some of the responsibility for the carnage.

"There has to be a balance. Both sides have to respect the other," police Capt. Jose Gaytan last week told lawmakers considering a bill that would toughen penalties for both pedestrians and drivers who violate traffic safety rules involving jaywalking and crosswalks.

While seniors 65 and older make up 11 percent of the state's population, they represent 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities. In 2002, for instance, O'ahu had 25 pedestrian fatalities; 15 of those pedestrians were 65 years or older.

During a brisk 45-minute walk around Kalihi the other day, walkers from the Lanakila center who ranged from 65 to 89 years old said they felt safe in the group, but had seen plenty of close calls when they walk on their own.

Tougher rules for drivers, walkers

A bill (SB2019) in the Legislature this session would toughen jaywalking and crosswalk laws for pedestrians and drivers alike.

Among the proposed changes:

• Require drivers to stop, not just yield, when a pedestrian is either in the crosswalk on the driver's side of the road or when a pedestrian is approaching the center of the road.

• Require drivers in one lane to stop whenever a driver in a similar direction lane has stopped to permit a pedestrian to cross the road. This would prevent accidents in which pedestrians have been hit by one driver trying to pass another who has stopped for a pedestrian.

• Bar pedestrians from stepping into the crosswalk if it's impractical, not just impossible, for the driver to stop.

• Prohibit pedestrians from crossing a street other than in a crosswalk or within 200 feet of an intersection in residential areas and where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing is available.

• Provide for up to $500 in fines and three days in jail for both pedestrians and drivers who repeatedly violate the law.

The group, which has been together for more than 10 years, has never had a serious accident involving an automobile, but several walkers have been injured after tripping over uneven spots in the sidewalk, said 79-year-old David Young, who often brings up the group's rear and calls to warn others about approaching cars.

"And you've got to watch out for the manhole covers. They get really slick when they are wet," he said.

Many of the walkers said they've seen others come dangerously close to being hit, either through their own inattention or the carelessness of drivers.

"A lot of time you see people running across the street to catch a bus," said Nancy Koizumi. "It's like they can't wait for the next one."

Walking group leader Sunny Wong, 80, said he has also seen people jaywalking near the center, even though the city recently put in a crosswalk, complete with speed table and median rest area right in front of the building.

In the group, the members wear bright-colored clothes, always wait for walk signs, try to make eye contact with turning drivers and generally look out for their own defense.

Other walkers aren't so careful.

Don Johanson, who lives in a Kapi'olani high-rise near Daiei, said he can count up to 50 people an hour trying to cross Kaheka Street near the store's driveway, even though stoplights are a few hundred feet away on either side. "No more than one person in 20 bothers to go down to the corner," he said.

Meckler, of Kaimuki, though, says it's the drivers who don't care.

"I'm literally risking my life to get across the street," she said. "If I got a walk signal and they're turning, too, they don't care at all. They're supposed to yield to pedestrians. The attitude seems to be that if I'm not surrounded by a lot of metal, I don't count at all."

The biggest problems, she said, come from drivers who come out of driveways without looking for pedestrians and drivers who make a right turn on a red signal without stopping to check for people in the crosswalk.

The conflict between drivers and pedestrians seems pervasive.

A survey by the state Transportation Department found that 95 percent of pedestrians felt that drivers should stop for them while they were in a crosswalk. On the other hand, 95 percent of the drivers felt pedestrians should wait until there were no cars approaching before entering a crosswalk.

Eighty-seven percent of the drivers polled said they stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, at least some of the time, but 31 percent of the pedestrians said they had either been hit or nearly hit by a driver while trying to cross the street.

Gaytan said the current crosswalk law fosters a false belief among many pedestrians that they have an absolute right to walk in front of an approaching vehicle.

They also believe, wrongly, that cars must stop any time a pedestrian is in any part of the crosswalk. In fact, cars are required to slow down or yield only when "the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling."

"Sometimes, they (pedestrians) have got a Superman type of attitude," he said. "That's what's getting them in trouble," he said.

Meckler thinks the conflict between drivers and pedestrians is part of a bigger problem occurring throughout all parts of society.

"One of the things I've noticed over the years is a precipitous decline in the number of people behaving civilly toward one another," she said. "There's just this total inability to be empathetic. And I don't have a clue how we're going to change that."

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.