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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 23, 2006

Accident logjam buster? Maybe

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer


House Bill 2655 would establish a special police investigation team to reduce the time police keep lanes and roadways closed during accident investigations.

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Lawmakers looking to relieve the gridlock that can affect thousands of O'ahu motorists for hours after a vehicular accident approved a bill yesterday intended to expedite police traffic investigations.

Two Senate committees gave their approval to a measure to establish a multi-disciplinary investigation team that would use techniques such as laser technology, digital cameras and computer-aided drawing software to reduce the time required by police to keep the roads closed.

According to the bill's authors, Honolulu police close lanes for an average of two to four hours to investigate a major traffic accident, while an investigation into a traffic death can take more than eight hours.

By contrast, the bill says the California Highway Patrol can investigate a major accident in 30 minutes and a fatality in an hour.

Honolulu police, however, say it is unlikely that the bill would result in speeding up investigation time.

"We have an investigation team that does many of the things that this bill asks to be done," said Maj. Susan Dowsett of the Honolulu Police Department's Traffic Division.

As far as technology goes, "from what I understand, we're using the industry standard," she said. "I don't think there's any other technology that would speed things up more than what we're using already."

Dowsett did say cities on the Mainland have something that Hawai'i doesn't: lots of roads to divert traffic to.

"The bigger things we would like to see is alternative routes," she said.

At least several times a year, traffic accidents on O'ahu and the resulting police investigations lead to drastic tie-ups during rush hour.

For example:

  • On Nov. 6, 2005, a two-car accident on H-2 Freeway near the Kipapa Gulch bridge set off a chain reaction of crashes that, along with the resulting investigation, closed a section of the freeway for more than four hours.

  • On May 12, 2005, several morning fender-benders backed up traffic on H-2 and H-1 freeways substantially. Travel from Mililani to downtown Honolulu took as long as two hours.

    A handful of residents testified yesterday in support of the bill, urging lawmakers to do something to alleviate traffic congestion during accident investigations.

    Retired social worker John James said his daughter and her husband worry about bringing their children to visit him in town because traffic might get backed up while they are driving from Waipahu. "They don't like to get stuck," he said.

    Eugene Malalis Jr. told lawmakers that lane closures in the morning as a result of traffic accidents have forced him to use vacation time to cover the hours he missed on the job. He said that after some accidents, "it has taken me three hours to get to work."

    But Kapolei resident Maeda Timson thinks it would be a bad idea to try to hurry investigations just because drivers are being inconvenienced.

    Although she has been stuck in traffic for an hour or more because of accidents, she said, "We're lucky we're alive. Everything's going to still be there when we get to our destination."

    Timson said that if the accident victim were a member of her family, she would want police to take all the time they needed for the investigation.

    "If they're the experts and they need the time to do a thorough job, that's what they need to do," she said.

    In addition to collecting evidence, she said, the first responders need time to remove the accident victims.

    "You need to have dignity and not have it open to the public to gawk at someone," she said.

    Despite the assertions by the bill's authors regarding faster accident clearance times elsewhere, Sgt. Robert Lung of the HPD Traffic Division testified that he talked to California police officers who said their investigations can be as lengthy as Hawai'i's. But the difference is that in Hawai'i, a highway closure can bring traffic to a halt because there might be nowhere else for cars to go.

    "In Honolulu, we just have too many cars and not enough roadways to do any diversions, especially during peak hours," Lung said.

    The bill calls for creating a team of specialists who can use technology to speed up the collection of evidence, including experts who can reconstruct the scene after police leave the roadway.

    But police say that while they are always looking for ways to speed up their work and have invested in the training and technology recommended in the bill they need to do a complete investigation before they leave the scene of the accident.

    "When somebody passes away, it's a one-time shot," said HPD Capt. Gregory Lefcourt. "You can't go back there and pick up what you didn't get the first time."

    Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.