|||Sunshine Week: Your right to know|
Sunshine Week is a national platform that has been used to stress the importance of open government and the freedom of information that all of us should support in a democratic society.
It is also a forum to allow the news media to let its readers and viewers know that we are diligent about seeking public records and, if they are unreasonably withheld, to do something about it.
To underscore the importance of this worthy effort, we revisited last week The Advertiser's persistent efforts in the past few years to wrest away from the state Department of Transportation traffic data related to accidents, particularly when pedestrians are involved.
In addition to our numerous daily stories and special reports on pedestrian deaths, this newspaper's examination of pedestrian deaths is well-documented with a major project in April 2005 about dangerous intersections. A month later, we offered a more detailed series about areas where pedestrians are most vulnerable.
The latter series was based on 1,055 traffic accidents reported to police involving pedestrians between August 2002 and August 2004. The information included locations of intersections where the accidents occurred, but not the deep detail we were seeking.
Reporter Mike Leidemann, who wrote those articles, knew that the Department of Transportation, with its 67 fields of data including locations and factors contributing to accidents, held the most complete information available. But getting that information, which could save lives, has been a painstaking struggle.
The DOT's arguments against The Advertiser over the past three years show just how maddening government bureaucracy can be. In September 2004, we asked for an electronic copy of traffic accidents for 2002 and 2003 that come from the state's motor vehicle accident report forms. We specifically said we were not seeking information that would include private details of those involved in the accidents, such as names, Social Security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers of the drivers or accident victims.
The DOT stonewalled, citing a federal statute that says data compiled for the purpose of "identifying, evaluating or planning" the safety enhancements to a potential accident site or hazardous road cannot be admitted into evidence or subject to discovery in a lawsuit. Since we are not suing the government over its roads or introducing information as part of a court case, we figured we'd be entitled to the information. After all, the Honolulu Police Department gave us the information that allowed us to analyze the 1,000 accidents used for the May 2005 series.
We appealed to the state's Office of Information Practices after the DOT turned us down, and when the OIP indicated months later that it was going to uphold our request, the DOT changed its tune. It acknowledged that the information should be released on paper, but then raised another roadblock. We had requested the data in electronic form so thousands of pages of data could be quickly sorted and analyzed. The DOT said it needed a special software program to display only selected fields with the private information blocked. The cost, they said, would be $20,000.
(Note to readers: When government bureaucracies don't want to give out information that is clearly public, look for an outrageously inflated price tag to follow.)
To gauge whether the DOT really wanted us to have the information, one need only look at its efforts around that time to back a legislative bill to prevent HPD from releasing accident information. We protested and the bill was shelved.
As 2007 began and more pedestrians were being hit and killed — 10 on O'ahu already this year, with many more injured — we went back to the DOT and narrowed our request for an electronic version of pedestrian accidents for 2005 and 2006 rather than the broader request for all accidents. Despite our earlier favorable OIP decision, interim DOT Director Barry Fukunaga responded 19 days later with another foot-dragging stunt: a new request to the OIP to reconsider their favorable 2005 ruling allowing us to see the documentation.
Notice a pattern here?
In the meantime, knowing that the DOT was required to provide us with paper versions of the accident records, reporter Rob Perez asked for a list of high-accident locations on all state and county roads, information DOT acknowledged it collects. Alvin Takeshita, head of the DOT's traffic safety branch, denied the request until the OIP could weigh in.
In other words, the Department of Transportation wouldn't even provide information it earlier said it would release and which the OIP clearly ruled should be made public.
Perez's excellent three-part series last week shows that the state's restrictions on information aren't limited to The Advertiser. The University of Hawai'i's urban planning experts can't get it either. Some other divisions of DOT can't get ready access, much less a member of the public.
A federal team, working on behalf of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, concluded in a report late last year that the DOT is "hampering the use of crash data for analytical and research activities that could impact the reduction of motor vehicle crashes that result in death and injury to Hawaii citizens."
The No. 1 public safety problem in Hawai'i right now is pedestrian safety. Meanwhile, the DOT hoards information that, if shared with others, might lead to solutions that nobody thus far has been able to develop.
Can we trust the DOT, armed with the data, to use it in an effective and responsible manner? No we cannot, because the federal team that visited last October concluded that the DOT's computer system holding the records was outdated, its database was unreliable, its data was old, the information had to be entered by hand and its quality-control system was spotty.
In its report, the federal team cited the state's "inability to fully meet (its) responsibility for providing a safe environment for its traveling public."
It's time for the DOT to play by the rules and release information it has been required to give up. And if it cannot properly maintain and analyze the information it has, it should turn it over to someone who can.