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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, April 18, 2005

State 'protecting' traffic information

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

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

The state Transportation Department spends several million dollars each year to identify potentially hazardous traffic areas but is reluctant to share the information with the public — or even other government agencies — for fear of being sued.

An accident snarls traffic on the H-1 Freeway eastbound between Leeward Community College and the Waimalu off-ramp.

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 31, 2002

The secrecy keeps vital traffic safety information out of the hands of Island drivers, the people who could use it most, safety advocates say.

However, the fear and reality of multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlements that are ultimately paid by taxpayers justify withholding the information, transportation officials said.

The reluctance to release the information puts the state at one end of a national debate over how traffic-accident data can be used, or abused, to increase public safety.

While Hawai'i and a few other states maintain a lid on accident-site information, others have moved to make the data — after excluding private information about people involved in accidents — as widely available as possible, even creating public databases and Web sites that allow drivers, pedestrians and others to quickly see locations that have the most accidents.

"It's a very important public health issue, but the state is just irrational about it," said Dr. Andrew Ten Have, a medical doctor who for years has been trying to see state data about accident locations on the Big Island, where he says the fatality rate is three or four times Hawai'i's average.

"We know there are four or five injury clusters and we'd like to find out why, but the state won't provide any details about any of that. It feels like they are protecting their own and have an adversarial relationship with those who want to work with them without being their enemy," Ten Have said.

Liability factor

Reducing accidents

To deal with potentially unsafe traffic situations, safety officials usually take a three-pronged approach:

Engineering: Add or change traffic signals. Widen or straighten roads. Reduce the speed limits. Install rumble strips or other traffic-calming devices. Improve lighting. Install guardrails. Change traffic-flow patterns.

Enforcement: Increase police presence by issuing more tickets or warnings. Set up DUI roadblocks. Strictly enforce seat-belt and car-seat regulations. Watch for dangerous or unregistered vehicles.

Education: Try to change driver or pedestrian behavior with programs such as Click It or Ticket, Walk-Wise Kupuna and anti-drunk-driving campaigns. Require more drivers' education before getting a license. Use television or radio ads to get drivers to be more careful and considerate. Share accident data more broadly with the public and raise awareness of dangerous locations.

Even other government agencies such as the state Health Department and county transportation departments have severely limited access to the data, officials said.

Alvin Takeshita, the head of DOT's Traffic Branch, said he would like to share more of the information but won't because it could be used by attorneys who blame the state for not correcting known traffic hazards fast enough.

"Then we'd all end up paying millions of dollars more in court settlements," he said. The state pays about $4 million per year in such cases, he said.

Because the state could have used the money lost in lawsuits as its 20 percent share to match available federal funding for highway work, the settlements translate into about $20 million in unfulfilled safety improvement projects in Hawai'i each year, Takeshita said.

"I'd like to make the state a model for information-sharing like other places, where they don't have to worry about having that information thrown back into their faces by the attorneys," Takeshita said.

State and federal laws specifically exclude state traffic data from being admitted into such civil cases.

However, Takeshita said many Hawai'i attorneys find ways around the law by obtaining similar information from county police departments, the same source The Advertiser used to obtain traffic information for an accompanying series of stories identifying some of the most accident-prone locations in Honolulu.

Earlier this year, DOT and the state attorney general's office sought to extend the state law to include police reports and data.

The bill died in the Senate Judiciary committee after testimony from attorneys and public information advocates said making the information public could help save lives in the future and preserve the right of injured parties to recover damages when the state is at fault.

"There's a more overriding public interest than just worrying about liability," said Art Park, an attorney. "Accident history is important in determining how dangerous a place can be. The information is there and it's got to be useful, but they don't want the public to know. What about public safety? A lawsuit doesn't help the person who is killed or injured; it also helps the next guy."

Park cites the example of a curve on Moanalua Road, where car after car crashed through wooden barriers into a culvert.

"It happened over and over again but nobody did anything until my client was crippled for life and we sued. Then the city put up a double-steel guardrail," he said. "I can still see the dents in it when I drive by, but at least nobody has gone down into the stream since then."

Critics say without seeing the state data, the public can't determine if state and county transportation engineers are making good judgments about which accident locations need repairs.

Push for access

Where to report traffic trouble

• An accident or a hazardous situation on any roadway: 911

• Malfunctioning traffic signal: 564-6101

• To report a potential problem or danger, or to suggest a solution for city streets: 523-4125

• To report a problem or danger, or to suggest a solution for state roads: 587-2160

In response to an Advertiser freedom of information request, the state Office of Information Practices ruled last month that traffic-accident data must be made available to those requesting it.

However, it accepted a DOT assertion that it cannot segregate the public and private information from other data, ruling that the state does not have to provide the information to researchers and others in an electronic form, thus making it largely useless for scientific, academic and other analysis.

Nationwide the trend is to make as much traffic-accident information available to the public as possible, according to national experts.

"Increasingly the move is to give access to more people," said Eric Rodgman, who headed a University of North Carolina effort that made all the state traffic-accident data available through the Internet.

"The more you can involve the public, the more you've got people trying to solve problems. They may want to avoid the area, especially at certain times of day or night, if they know there's a problem. If you're a pedestrian or a bicyclist, you may want to know what area is most dangerous and avoid going there if possible," he said.

Rodgman acknowledged that the information can lead to more lawsuits.

"Yeah, downside is the legal one," he said. "Cities and states can end up getting sued if they've ignored problems. Even that can be a motivation, though, to get things fixed as soon as possible."

Hawai'i holding out

Better collection and use of traffic-accident data is one of the federal government's highest priorities, said Joe Carra, associate administrator in charge of the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, which is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"It's so important to everything we do," Carra said. "If you talk to anyone here, you'll find them talking about data. We have to have the data to be able to do very much."

However, Hawai'i is among the states that do not participate in all the data-sharing plans NHTSA has developed, including a program to share information with the federal government about nonfatal automobile crashes, Carra said.

"We have a philosophy nationally that it's generally beneficial to make as much of the data as possible available to the public, but that has to be tempered with concerns about privacy and confidentiality," Carra said. "The legal ramifications are part of it, too, but that's not the thing that usually comes to mind first."

Despite the reluctance to share information, DOT is improving its ability to analyze information in-house about accidents in Hawai'i, several observers said.

"There are some knowledgeable and forward-looking folks (at DOT) who are improving the databases by leaps and bounds," said University of Hawai'i engineering professor Panos Prevedouros.

Still, restrictions on access to the data, "restrict our ability to study the issues and improve flaws based on past experience," he said.

Councilman Charles Djou, whose district includes a part of Kapi'olani Boulevard identified in an Advertiser analysis as one of the most dangerous stretches of roads on O'ahu, said the DOT should be more forthcoming.

"It's good public information to have," he said. "The public owns the street. The taxpayers paid for the streets. So we should have a right to know what's happening on the streets."

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