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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, April 17, 2005

No systematic approach to traffic analysis

 •  Driver Beware
A special report on O'ahu's traffic problems, including video and interactive graphics

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Honolulu city officials do not have a regular process to review and evaluate high-accident locations and make appropriate changes.

At the Honolulu Traffic Management Center, Jason Yotsuda monitors traffic so he can report problems to radio stations to alert commuters. That's helpful to drivers on a daily basis, but the city lacks a regular process to evaluate long-term traffic risks and to improve safety.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Instead, officials often rely on anecdotal evidence or wait until a high-profile accident before taking action, according to several transportation experts.

"It's stunning that we're not doing more," said University of Hawai'i urban planning professor Karl Kim. "Accidents are one of the leading causes of injury and death, yet we don't have very good data about them."

Ed Hirata, director of the city's Transportation Services Department, agreed.

"We definitely should be doing more," he said. "If we don't have the manpower to do it ourselves, we'll consider hiring a consultant to do it for us."

Using a more systematic approach would allow planning officials to compare where the biggest needs are and to respond accordingly, rather than on a case-by-case basis. That would help them make better decisions about where to spend limited financial resources, Kim said.

For instance, an O'ahu-wide review of all pedestrian accidents might show where traffic-calming devices are most needed. Instead, city officials often scatter the traffic-calming devices such as roundabouts and speed bumps throughout the island on the basis of requests or complaints from politicians and residents.

City officials don't have the resources to do a systematic analysis for all of O'ahu's roadways, said Paul Wan, Honolulu's chief traffic engineer.

"The city is growing by leaps and bounds ... and that takes a lot of our resources," Wan said. "We just don't have the time, staff or money to have a regular research operation."

Instead, the city usually relies on complaints or concerns raised by elected officials, residents or police before investigating conditions at a particular location.

That's not unusual in cities of all sizes across the country, said Lisa Fontana Tierney, technical projects director for the national Institute of Traffic Engineers in Washington, D.C.

"It's a common complaint that city officials are understaffed and don't have the resources to be more proactive," Fontana said. "That doesn't mean it's right. It's not OK to just go around putting out fires. If complete studies were done more frequently and fixes made, there would be less driver frustration and fewer accidents."

Still, city officials are confident they know most of the problem areas.

"Statistics are a good starting point, but they don't tell you everything you need to know. It's better to do a site visit," said former city Transportation Services Director Cheryl Soon.

"Would it be nice to have more stats? Sure. But you hear things other ways, from legislators, neighborhood boards. You get information anecdotally. Very rarely was it wrong. There aren't a whole lot of locations that we didn't already have a file on."

When city officials do receive a request to study a specific site, they use an eight-point system to rate the severity of the problem and plan a course of action, Wan said.

For instance, he said, when a previous survey identified a high number of accidents at the intersection of Punahou and King streets, city officials using a grant from State Farm Insurance were able to pay for and install a left-turn signal that quickly reduced the number of accidents.

One intersection being studied now is at Kapi'olani Boulevard and Ke'eaumoku Street, where accident patterns have changed since the opening of the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club complex, he said.

"Engineering, enforcement and education could all be done better if they were informed by data about where the accidents occur," Kim said.

Police make detailed reports on every major traffic accident on O'ahu and log the basic information into a new database. However, the information is not regularly sorted or distributed throughout the department or to other city agencies for engineering or enforcement action without a specific request.

"We used to do that, but now the district commanders can get access to the data on their own and print out their own accident profiles. It's up to them to do that," said Maj. Doug Miller, head of the Police Department's Traffic Division, which investigates major accidents.

The most comprehensive data bank on traffic accident information, with more than 60 separate fields recording everything from time and location to type of vehicle, is maintained by the Traffic Branch of the state Department of Transportation under the federally mandated and financed Traffic Accident Reporting System.

However, the state does not routinely share the information with the public or other government agencies because of liability concerns.

"That's ridiculous. How else are we going to fix the problems if they don't won't tell us where they are?" said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose urban district borders Kapi'olani Boulevard.