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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Big Island roads are deadliest in Hawai'i

 •  Landslide almost killed him

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

The Big Island is the deadliest place to drive in Hawai'i.

Public briefings on state's plans

The state Transportation Department is holding a series of public information meeting on the Big Island this week to discuss its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, including a number of projects designed to improve traffic safety and reduce congestion in Hawai'i County.

All meetings begin at 7 p.m.

• Tomorrow — Kea'au Community Center, 16-186 Pilimua St..

• Tuesday — Hilo State Office Building, 75 Aupuni St.

• Wednesday — Waimea Civic Center, 67-5189 Kamamalu St.

• Thursday — Konawaena High School, 81-1043 Konawaena School Road, Kealakekua.

Whether measured by population or miles driven, the fatality rate in Hawai'i County is consistently two to three times the rest of the state, and a growing number of doctors, lawmakers and concerned residents are wondering why more isn't being done to stop the deaths and injuries.

"We're tired of seeing our friends and neighbors dying on the roads," said state Rep. Josh Green. "The time has come to recommit ourselves to safety."

Over the past five years, the Big Island has accounted for about 28 percent of all traffic deaths in Hawai'i, even though it has only 12 percent of the population. Last year, 41 people died on the roads there. In a two-month period earlier this year, nine people died — including a 17-year-old high school honor student, two well-known community activists, two tourists and an elite wheelchair athlete.

Experts fear that the problem may be getting worse.

With homes being built farther from existing jobs and the new Hawai'i Superferry expected to bring hundreds more driving tourists to the island every week starting in 2007, residents worry there will be even more fatal crashes.

"Vacationers must also reconsider their plans, particularly if they want to drive anywhere. The roads are too unsafe and the emergency specialist care they may need cannot be assured," Dr. Barry Blum, an orthopedic surgeon at Kona Community Hospital, warned in a commentary earlier this month.

There's no single reason for the island's higher death rate, traffic safety officials say. Instead, they cite a long list of contributing factors:

• The island has far more miles of undivided, high-speed highways than elsewhere.

• Many of the roads in rural areas are cut through mountainsides, with little or no shoulders and steep cliffs that produce frequent rockfalls.

• The percentage of alcohol-related fatalities is much higher than in the rest of the state.

• Forced into long commutes, many residents are driving while fatigued or in bad weather.

• Police enforcement of speeding, alcohol, drug and other traffic laws is limited by long distances and a shortage of officers.

• Emergency medical service teams responding to rural roadway crashes often have to come from far away, extending the time before a victim receives first aid or hospital care. A shortage of doctors at Big Island hospitals exacerbates the problem.

On the east side of the island, rockslides present one of the biggest dangers in isolated rural areas.

"These conditions near vertical walls rain rock and debris on the highway with almost every rain and result in frequent large collapses which occur without warning and frequently block the highway," said Dr. Scott Grosskreutz. "I have never seen any roads built through such unstable soil conditions with such vertical cuts anywhere else in the United States."

Elsewhere on the island, long stretches of undivided highway, high alcohol and drug use, and spotty police enforcement all complicate the picture.

"We started looking into this in 2001 when we noticed that the overall age-adjusted death rates were high," said Dr. Sharon Vitousek, part of the North Hawai'i Outcomes Project, a group focusing on public health issues. "When we investigated, we found traffic accidents were a leading cause of death here."

Alcohol is involved in more than half the Big Island deaths. Over the last 10 years, 52.9 percent of all motor vehicle-related fatalities on the Big Island involved alcohol, compared to 41.7 percent for Honolulu and a national average of 40 percent.

Rep. Green said the county doesn't have enough police to deal with the problem.

"The Police Department is operating with 71 unfilled positions," he said.

"Sometimes you've got only three or four officers on duty covering several hundreds of square miles. If they go to a domestic complaint, there's no one left to patrol the roads when someone passes you at 85 mph."

What's more, the department has only one officer certified as a drug recognition expert, Vitousek said.

"It may take hours to get him out to a site where someone is suspected of driving under the influence of drugs," she said.

State and county officials say they are aware of the problems and are trying to provide some relief:

• Using federal grants, the state recently helped create a coordinator position to head a county alcohol-reduction task force as well as step up participation in programs such as the national "You Drink, You Drive, You Lose" campaign and the local "Hugs, not Drugs," said Gordon Hong, head of the Department of Transportation's Safe Communities Program.

• DOT officials said a private contractor has just completed a report to identify the most dangerous rockfall areas on the Hamakua Coast. The state is studying the report before releasing it to the public, a spokesman said.

• In an effort to reduce head-on crashes, the state later this year will sign a contract to expand the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway in Kona between Henry Street and the airport from two lanes to four and add a 30-foot landscaped median. Other phases of the widening and safety project are expected to continue through 2017.

• Vitousek's group, working with the state Health Department's Injury Prevention Program, has produced a map showing the location of all fatal accidents in the last 10 years and is analyzing related injury data.

• The group also is working with police and county officials to give the problems more public recognition and to offer solutions, ranging from education to engineering to enforcement.

Even so, some worry that the Big Island traffic problem isn't getting its fair share of attention or money from the Legislature.

"We've got to continue making a better investment in safety features, education and police enforcement," said Green, D-6th (Kailua, Keauhou).

Vitousek also noted that the state will hold a hearing this week on the Big Island to solicit comments and recommendations on more than 50 planned traffic improvement projects there.

"But in many cases we don't know anything about the need or the projects," she said. "The state won't even tell us where the traffic safety hot spots are. How can we make recommendations without that knowledge?"

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