Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008
Slow approach to safety 'not protecting the people'
City, state deny claims of piecemeal efforts, say habits must change
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It was already dark by the time Florelyn Ramos, 17, and her 14-year-old friend began walking to a nearby bus stop in Waialua.
As the two crossed a narrow rural bridge that had no streetlights and no place for pedestrians to walk apart from traffic, Ramos was hit and fatally injured by a speeding truck.
The driver told police he never saw the teenager. Investigators believed Ramos had been drinking and was walking in the middle of Kaukonahua Road with her back to oncoming traffic when the collision occurred on a January night in 2004.
The family alleged in a lawsuit that the 1930s-era, state-owned bridge became a death trap for Ramos.
While the state blamed the teenager and the speeding driver for causing the accident, and denied that poor lighting and the lack of a pedestrian pathway were factors, it has since installed two streetlamps at either end of the bridge. One was erected near where a state crew four years earlier took down the bridge's only streetlight, then failed to put it back up.
The state eventually plans to replace the two-lane bridge, which is so narrow pedestrians practically have to turn their bodies sideways and hug the bridge railing to keep clear of passing vehicles. Only 9 inches separate the base of the railing from the edge line of the road along much of the bridge.
What happened in the Ramos case underscores what many say has been government's flawed approach to pedestrian safety in the Islands.
Even though Hawai'i for years has been among the most dangerous places in the country for pedestrians, the state and city have made little progress in bringing down the high fatality rates. In 2006, the latest year for which state-by-state comparisons are available, Hawai'i had 2.41 deaths per 100,000 people, the 7th-highest rate nationally. In 2000, the rate was 2.39, also No. 7 nationally.
But the rate for elderly pedestrians has fallen, though Hawai'i has ranked No. 1 in each of the past three years.
A key problem, according to safety advocates, pedestrians, community activists and others, is that government officials have been more reactive than proactive in addressing the safety problem, typically launching initiatives without a comprehensive, systematic strategy. Sometimes, the initiatives come only after a serious accident or after years of community complaints about a particular location.
And while Hawai'i's government agencies have placed a higher priority on pedestrian safety in recent years, more needs to happen, advocates say.
"Have the city and state done enough?" asked Ron Lockwood, the McCully/Mo'ili'ili Neighborhood Board chairman who is active in pedestrian-safety campaigns. "No. It's been bits and pieces. It's been way too piecemeal. We need to be more proactive."
Added JR Buenconsejo, 47, a Downtown resident who has been hit twice in crosswalks in the past year-and-a-half: "I'm afraid to walk in my own neighborhood, and it's not because of crime."
'try to be proactive'
The city and state, facing tight budgets, say they have done what they can to address the pedestrian problem, especially over the past few years. They say they have launched public-awareness campaigns, stepped up enforcement of tougher traffic laws, added better crossing signals, installed more visible crosswalks and taken other steps to make the roads safer. They dispute the notion that their efforts are piecemeal and reactive, saying they look for ways to improve overall traffic safety, which benefits all road users.
But like cash-strapped government departments on the Mainland, local transportation agencies are struggling to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands on the roads, often confronting situations in which enhancing pedestrian safety comes at the expense of worsening traffic congestion.
As urban development spreads to once-rural areas and as more drivers and pedestrians converge on streets designed primarily for moving vehicles, the demands become greater and more complicated, the potential for accidents more pronounced.
"While we try to be proactive, we can't possibly get in front of every location before something happens," said Wayne Yoshioka, head of the city's Department of Transportation Services.
The pedestrian problem, to be sure, is so complex that government alone can't solve it.
Drivers and pedestrians must play key roles as well. Getting them to change risky behaviors ˆ… drivers speeding or talking on cell phones, for instance, or pedestrians crossing on red lights or jaywalking on busy streets ˆ… will go a long way toward reducing the problem.
"We can do all the engineering we want, but if someone's going to be driving drunk or speeding, there's nothing we can do to prevent them from running a red light," said Brennon Morioka, director of the state Department of Transportation.
While that may be true, the government can do much more to enforce traffic laws, educate people about pedestrian safety and keep the roads in better shape, safety experts, pedestrians and others say. Government, they add, also can respond to residents' concerns on a timelier basis, rather than waiting until after an accident happens.
"The whole system is not protecting the people," said Wendell Chun, whose 66-year-old wife, Lois Jeanine Reed, was run over and killed in an O'ahu crosswalk last year. "If we don't start putting our foot down, we're going to get more pedestrian deaths."
Consider these cases:
- Since at least 2003, the McCully/Mo'ili'ili Neighborhood Board has complained to the city about dangerous conditions at the intersection of South King and Hau'oli streets. Two unsignalized crosswalks about 50 yards apart span six lanes of that major east-west thoroughfare in an area with a school, supermarket, bank and other businesses. In August, the city told the board the intersection was being studied for a pedestrian-activated signal. Three months later, Gwyne Isa, an AARP volunteer active in pedestrian-safety campaigns, was critically injured while in one of the two crosswalks. The city has since decided to put a signal at the intersection by year's end as part of a pilot project.
- Because of deficient lighting, the state several years ago paid a contractor to install streetlights along the makai side of Farrington Highway on the Wai'anae Coast. The area had been the scene of multiple nighttime pedestrian accidents, and poor lighting was a common complaint. In June 2003, less than a year after the beachside lighting project was completed, Paul Brzezowski and his 7-year-old son, Matthew, were struck and killed at night in a Nanakuli crosswalk. The driver told police he didn't see them. The makai-side lights that had been installed nine months earlier ˆ… including one over the crosswalk ˆ… were not working that night and did not work for another two months after the accident, court documents show. The state had had problems with the lights switching off, apparently because the electrical lines were too close to trees and were shorting out, according to documents in a lawsuit filed by the family against the state. The lack of lighting that night was a major cause of the accident, an expert hired by the family said. While the state disputed that contention, it paid $150,000 to settle the lawsuit, without admitting fault.
- In December 2005, William Kobashigawa, a World War II veteran, was fatally injured as he crossed at an unsignalized, midblock crosswalk in the predawn darkness in Kane'ohe. The Kamehameha Highway location had been the scene of several other pedestrian accidents, including a fatality, and the target of complaints about poor visibility and lighting. Immediately after the Kobashigawa accident, the city trimmed the trees blocking the overhead streetlight and nearby traffic signs, his family said. Several months after Kobashigawa's death, the city decided to remove the crosswalk. Traffic counts taken at the time showed the crosswalk didn't meet recommended safety standards set by the federal government.
- For several years after Kapolei High School opened in 2000, then-Rep. Mark Moses tried repeatedly to get the state to install a crosswalk and traffic signal at the main entrance to the school. Numerous near-accidents prompted Moses and other community members to push for traffic-control measures. But jurisdiction and bureaucracy issues got in the way, delaying action. In January 2002, Angela Niemi, 14, was hit by a truck and seriously injured as she crossed the seven-lane intersection in front of the school. She was headed to her first class that morning. Despite the community's efforts, the traffic signal wasn't installed until 2005, three years after the accident.
Sue Kanour, Angela's mother, couldn't believe how long government took to install the traffic signal.
"It makes you feel really angry with the whole system ˆ… and helpless to get it fixed," Kanour said. "What you feel like is that people don't care."
- It took several years, multiple accidents and a few sign-waving demonstrations before a signal was installed at the corner of Iroquois Point Road and Keaunui Street in 'Ewa Beach in 2007. In the three to four years before the signal was erected, roughly a dozen accidents were reported at the intersection, and parents were so concerned about their children's safety that they would wave signs urging motorists to slow down as the students walked to nearby Holomua Elementary School. In one 2005 accident, a woman pushing a stroller with two toddlers and a 6-year-old boy were hit by a car. Developer Gentry Properties was responsible for installing the traffic light, but permitting approvals and other issues delayed the project.
- Even before parents were holding demonstrations at the Keaunui Street location, a community task force had been formed to deal with the dangers at an unsignalized crosswalk on busy Fort Weaver Road in 'Ewa. In 2001, the task force recommended several possible solutions, including a traffic light. But before one could be installed, Marilene Bacani, a 16-year-old honors student, was struck and killed in the crosswalk. The state installed the light a year later and paid $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Bacani's family. It noted that some in the community had opposed installing signals on Fort Weaver because of traffic congestion. Even before Bacani's accident, the state tried to remove the unsignalized crosswalk but encountered community opposition and abandoned that plan.
Since 2000, the state has paid roughly $1 million, including $135,000 to the Ramos family in Waialua, to settle eight lawsuits involving pedestrian accidents. The city didn't respond to a similar request for what it has paid.
short crossing time
One of the most common complaints pedestrians have about crosswalks here is that the traffic signals don't allow sufficient time for people to cross, especially the elderly or disabled. AARP Hawai'i found that at 50 intersections statewide it surveyed in 2006, more than a third didn't allow enough time for people with normal physical abilities to cross and nearly half were inadequate for those with limited abilities.
When the state did its own survey, including some of the AARP sites, it found that five of 46 didn't meet the time standard for people with normal abilities and 33 of 46 fell short of the standard for people with limited abilities.
"Slower crossing rates should not be indiscriminately applied at all crosswalks," then-DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said in an e-mail. "These slower rates should be used where there are nearby senior facilities and communities with a significant elderly population."
The city, which maintains all crosswalk signals on O'ahu, says it makes adjustments typically at locations used heavily by seniors or children.
But officials have to balance the added time with the need to keep traffic flowing, turning to empirical data to determine whether changes are warranted.
"In a case where we believe safety is (compromised), safety always wins ˆ… no question," said the city's Yoshioka.
Morioka, the state transportation director, said he doesn't believe Hawai'i's high fatality rates will change substantially until people's attitudes and habits change ˆ… something the state is addressing via its education campaigns, particularly those aimed at school students.
Because changing behavior is a long-term process, Morioka said, significant reductions in the fatality rates could take a generation to achieve.
No matter what kind of engineering or other changes are made, officials stress that drivers and pedestrians hold the key to ensuring the roads remain safe.
"In the end, engineering and design can only go so far in protecting the traveling public," said Ishikawa, who has since left DOT. "Personal responsibility remains a major factor, with nearly all accidents linked to human behavior."
Reach Rob Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org