Another relatively safe year on road
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
The number of traffic deaths in Hawai'i rose slightly last year due to a big increase in motorcycle-related fatalities. Nevertheless, 2009 marked the second straight year in which overall deaths were far below recent average.
From 2003 through 2007, the state averaged more than 142 traffic deaths per year.
The number of deaths fell significantly in 2008, to a total of 107. The total last year came to 109.
The decline follows a national trend. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic deaths nationally have been declining steadily since 2005. In 2008, traffic deaths reached a record low of 37,261. While statistics have not yet been compiled for 2009, data gathered by NHTSA through the first half of the year indicated further improvement.
According to the NHTSA, traffic deaths were down 10 percent in the first quarter of 2009 and nearly 4 percent in the second. Over the last couple of years, the decline in traffic deaths has corresponded to an overall decline in vehicle miles traveled — itself an indication that Americans are driving less because of fuel costs and the economy.
In Hawai'i, traffic deaths are down markedly since 2006 — when there were 161 total deaths, including 94 motor vehicle occupants and 32 pedestrians — though perhaps for different reasons.
"I think this has a lot to do with the increase in awareness," said DOT director Brennon Morioka. "Two or three years ago, we felt we had to be more aggressive in our public education so we partnered with the county police departments for programs like Walk Wise, Click It or Ticket, DUI checkpoints, going out to senior centers to talk about rules of the road, going to schools to talk about traffic safety, increasing enforcement of crosswalk laws and jaywalking.
"It was all about changing people's behaviors," Morioka said. "We can make the roads as safe as we can from an engineering standpoint, but if people drive drunk, if they speed or drive too aggressively, people will continue to die on our roads."
Morioka said the continued decrease in traffic deaths is an indication that public education efforts are working.
"We had the biggest drop (in deaths) between 2007 and 2008, but we didn't know what to attribute it to," he said. "We hoped it had to do with what we were doing, but it could also have been a flukey year. Seeing it continue, we're happy that it has a lot to do with our awareness and education efforts."
There have been five traffic deaths so far this year — including two motorcycle fatalities on the Big Island yesterday — matching the five at the same time last year.
Maj. Thomas Nitta, HPD Traffic Division commander, agreed that education, enforcement and other mea- sures probably have played a role in declining death counts. He said the Click It or Ticket campaign has been particularly effective.
"Educational and enforcement efforts, legislation, and individual awareness and responsibility are all important and part of HPD's ongoing efforts to remind the public of traffic/pedestrian safety," Nitta said. "Click It or Ticket is the most well-known program. It is a national campaign, headed by the state Department of Transportation, with enforcement provided by the four county police departments. Hawai'i leads the nation in seat belt usage, with O'ahu at 97.7 percent compliance. Seat belts save lives."
Motor vehicle occupant deaths decreased for the third straight year. There were 54 such deaths in 2009, compared with 58 the previous year, according to data provided by the state Department of Transportation.
Pedestrian deaths fell for the fourth consecutive year, dropping from 21 in 2008 to 16 last year.
Meanwhile, motorcycle deaths rose from 22 in 2008 to 30 last year, according to the DOT. The first six months of 2009 were particularly deadly, with 21 motorcycle-related deaths recorded statewide.
DOT statistics do not account for traffic deaths that occur off of public roads. According to Advertiser archives, there were at least three motorcycle-related deaths on private roads or property in the first half of last year.
Moped deaths increased from three in 2008 to five last year, and there were three bicycle deaths in 2009, compared with two the previous year.
There was one death involving an all-terrain vehicle last year, the same as the previous year.
Morioka said he and other transportation officials were "very worried" by the spate of motorcycle deaths in the first half of the year.
In conjunction with the national Share the Road campaign, the DOT sponsored a series of safety rallies, public service announcements and other events over the summer aimed at encouraging drivers and motorcycle riders to watch out for each other.
The increased attention coincided with the slowdown of what had been a record rate of motorcycle-related deaths in the Islands.
While collisions with other vehicles remains a leading cause of motorcycle deaths nationally, Advertiser archives indicate that most of the motorcycle deaths in Hawai'i last year were solo accidents and many involved excessive speed.
According to Nitta, 14 of O'ahu's 17 motorcycle deaths were attributed to "operator error," which includes speeding, drugs, alcohol, or lack of operating skills.
Nitta noted that Honolulu has more than 600,000 licensed drivers and fewer than 2,000 police officers, "so we're asking drivers to be responsible and accountable for their choices when operating a motor vehicle or motorcycle."
Morioka said his department has had great success working with the military and local motorcycle clubs.
He said the DOT is now working closely with community colleges to enhance motorcycle safety classes through grant money.
Morioka said the department is also looking for ways to reach out to sport-bike riders, who tend to be younger and less likely to join formal motorcycle clubs.