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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 1, 2006

O'ahu traffic fatalities soar to six-year high

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By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Two memorials just yards apart mark the sites where four lives ended on Kamehameha Highway in Hau'ula.

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DEATHS ON O'AHU

2000: 65

2001: 78

2002: 67

2003: 79

2004: 70

2005: 78

2006: 80 (as of yesterday)

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Four women died in Kunia when the vehicle in which they were riding swerved to avoid an oncoming car and ended up hitting a cement truck.

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A moped rider died from injuries he suffered in an accident with a van on Olomea Street in Kapalama.

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Kristi Dabin, foreground, and Leimomi Soberano adjust a photo of relative Bobby Gouveia at a memorial at Dillingham Airfield, near the spot where a car accident killed him.

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The number of people killed on O'ahu roadways this year has already surpassed last year's total and hit a six-year high, a worrisome trend heading into the holiday season, police and state Department of Transportation officials said.

As of yesterday, 80 people have died in car accidents on O'ahu, police said, compared with 78 last year. Police attribute the increase to speed-related incidents and to two high-profile accidents that claimed eight lives.

"It has not been a good year. It has not been a good year at all," said Scott Ishikawa, a DOT spokesman. "What concerns all of us is that we haven't hit the holiday season yet, which is when a lot of people party."

In more than half of this year's 80 traffic fatalities, speed, alcohol or both have been factors, police said. "Speed is a great factor. It appears to be the primary cause in more than half our motor vehicle collisions, and that's not a good thing," said Honolulu Police Maj. Susan Dowsett, head of the department's traffic division. "It just takes an inexperienced driver to lose control of a vehicle, and if they have a lot of their friends in the car, speed can kill. There is still a lot of drinking and driving going on."

One bright spot: The number of pedestrian fatalities this year is down to 16 from 29 the previous year and 28 in 2004.

Officials aren't ready to say why that might be, however, but 13 months after a new crosswalk safety law went into effect, O'ahu is on track to see its first drop in pedestrian fatalities in years.

Police began enforcing the new pedestrian law in September of last year, requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians when they are in the driver's half of the roadway or approaching quickly from the other side.

But state officials and pedestrian advocates point out that although there was a one-year drop, the number of pedestrian deaths is still too high.

"All I want to stress is drivers have got to be aware of pedestrians," said Gordon Hong, head of the state Transportation Department's Safe Communities Program. "Even if both are in the wrong, the driver will always win the battle."

Bruce Bottorff, spokesman for AARP-Hawai'i, an advocate for safer crosswalks, said he hopes the promising statistics represent the beginning of a positive trend.

"But the last thing in the world we want to do is start celebrating prematurely," he added. "And we have yet to see widespread behavioral changes."

2 CRASHES, 8 DEATHS

Speed and alcohol both played a role in two separate traffic accidents earlier this year that took the lives of eight people.

At 7:35 a.m. April 24, four women were killed when the pickup they were riding to work in a tomato field swerved to avoid an oncoming car. The truck collided with a cement truck.

Killed were Aquilina Polendey, 57, of Waipahu; Lorna Laroco, 53, of 'Ewa Beach; Gertrudis Montano, 59, of 'Ewa Beach; and Ana Sacalamitao, 46, of Waipahu. All four were thrown from the truck.

The pickup, which was carrying 10 people, was heading southbound on Kunia Road near the Anonui Street entrance to the Royal Kunia subdivision when it tried to swerve out of the way of an oncoming sedan.

The sedan had just tried to overtake other northbound traffic, police said.

A 46-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of five counts of causing an accident involving death or serious bodily injury and three counts of causing an accident involving substantial bodily injury. No charges have been filed, and the investigation remains open.

Each count is a class-B felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine.

On Aug. 19, a 15-year-old boy who had been drinking and was speeding lost control of a car as it rounded a turn past Kokololio Bridge on Kamehameha Highway and slammed into a utility pole at 4:20 a.m. Pepe Naupoto, the driver, and Alithia Ah Nee, 16, a passenger, were killed.

Then, at 10:45 that night, 10 to 15 teenagers who knew Naupoto and Ah Nee were standing or sitting on the side of the road, paying respects and setting up a makeshift memorial when a car driven by a 21-year-old woman police say was speeding, lost control around the turn, crossed into the opposite lane and struck the mourners.

Killed in that crash were Benson Orem Kauvaka, 16, and Summer-Lynn Mau, 19.

Traffic investigators opened two negligent homicide cases and two negligent injury cases in connection with the crashes. The Hau'ula crashes are notable because both drivers were speeding, police said, and both lost control on the same turn, crossed over into the opposite lane and crashed in almost the same spot.

"Both (collisions) were very sad and very unusual that you would have that many at one location," Dowsett said. "The multiple (fatality) accidents are especially difficult for family and friends because they lose so many at one time. The last thing you want to do is to be a driver and know that your friend died because of your actions and you'll have to live with that for the rest of your life."

PREVENTION IS KEY

Preventing alcohol-related traffic deaths is the goal of a series of sobriety checkpoints that will be set up in all eight police districts on O'ahu from Dec. 15 through Jan. 2, 2007.

Through Sept. 30, Honolulu police have made 2,552 DUI arrests, compared with 2,549 at the same time last year and 3,282 in 2005.

First-time DUI offenders face a fine of $150 to $1,000, a mandatory 14 hours of substance-abuse counseling, 72 hours of community service and a 90-day license suspension plus a night in jail, the city prosecutor's office said.

"Last year in Hawai'i, 71, or 51 percent, of the 140 traffic deaths involved alcohol. This sadly represented an 11 percent increase from the prior year. And the tragedy continues into 2006 with such shockingly high numbers of traffic deaths," said Connie Abram, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving- Hawai'i.

"I am fearful of what the upcoming holiday season may bring with the anticipated increase in festivities."

Staff writer Mary Vorsino contributed to this report.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.