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Stop signals

A consortium of traffic stakeholders forges a five-year strategy to halt and hold the alarming number of fatalities at 100

By Dave Koga


It was just brutal out there.

In 2006, 161 Hawaii residents lost their lives in traffic-related incidents, including 32 pedestrians.

From 2001 to 2005, the average yearly statewide toll was 135. From 2001 to 2006, the total was 835.

In 2007, the state Department of Transportation launched an ambitious project — the Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan — that aimed to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths to 100 or fewer a year by 2012.

More than 150 participants from a broad-based consortium of interests including public safety, public health, law enforcement, the judiciary, highway design, private advocacy groups and data management got involved.

In creating the plan, areas of emphasis were designated — with much of the initial focus on impaired driving, as statistics show 39 percent of drivers involved in traffic fatalities in Hawaii test positive for alcohol or drugs. More than 100 strategies were put forward, some involving enforcement, others pushing education, new laws, even engineering solutions.

"The plan has a lot of key areas in it and it has helped to save lives, but there's still a lot of work to do," says Dr. Sharon Vitousek, director of the North Hawaii Outcomes Project and one of four original leaders of the effort.

See the safety plan at the state Department of Transportation's website:

Since the plan was put into effect, fatalities have fallen significantly — 138 in 2007, 107 in 2008, 109 in 2009 and, unofficially, 114 in 2010.

There is no way to say for certain that the plan is directly responsible for the drop in deaths since it can only suggest changes and has no authority to create public policy. Even participants admit that.

But they say the plan has mobilized safety advocates and played a vital role in raising public awareness of issues such as seatbelt use, speeding and drunken driving, and in that way it has been a huge success.

And all that really matters, they say, is the bottom line: Fewer deaths on Hawaii's roads and highways.--—

Shortly before 7 p.m. on New Year's Day, on an unlit stretch of Kunia Road, the first of two cars that police would later say were being driven "erratically and at a high rate of speed" crossed the centerline of the two-lane blacktop and into oncoming traffic.

The initial collision turned two sedans into lumps of crumpled metal in an instant and set off a five-vehicle, chain-reaction crash that left wreckage scattered for 100 yards.

Jennifer Parsons, a 42-year-old mother of three from Waianae, and 12-year-old Samson Sese of Kaneohe became the state's first traffic fatalities of 2011. Six others were injured.

In the aftermath, some wondered if there was anything that could have been done to prevent the tragedy. On what was an almost pitch-black night, would lights along Kunia Road have helped? What about rumble strips on the centerline and along the shoulders of the narrow country road that sees heavy use as a shortcut from Wahiawa to Ewa Beach and Kapolei?

Sadly, in this case, no. There are no engineering remedies for human behavior.


Since peaking in 2006, the number of traffic-related deaths has dropped noticeably. The goal of a five-year plan launched in 2007 is to keep the fatalities to 100 or fewer. A look at the total fatalities, with pedestrian ones in parentheses:
2003: 133 (23 pedestrians)
2004: 142 (31 pedestrians)
2005: 140 (36 pedestrians)
2006: 161 (32 pedestrians)
2007: 138 (28 pedestrians)
2008: 107 (21pedestrians)
2009: 109 (16 pedestrians)
2010*: 114 (27 pedestrians)

*Preliminary figures Source: Walk Wise Hawaii

Still, if signage or lighting can make a rural road a little safer, if technology can keep drunken drivers from starting their cars, if a computer database can pinpoint dangerous stretches of highway, if overhauling the driver's license manual can make motorists more aware of the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists, in fact, if anything can done to save lives ... shouldn't it be done?

That's the idea behind an ambitious and sprawling project — the Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan, spearheaded by the state Department of Transportation in 2006 — that involves multiple government and private-sector agencies working toward a goal of reducing traffic-related deaths in the state to 100 or fewer a year by 2012.

According to the state, 161 people died in Hawaii in traffic-related incidents in 2006, including 32 pedestrians. From 2001 to 2005, the average yearly statewide toll was 135.

Since the highway safety plan was implemented, the fatality numbers have fallen significantly. In 2007, it was 138, including 28 pedestrians. In 2008, it was 107 (21 pedestrians). In 2009, it was 109 (16 pedestrians). Last year, it was an as-yet unofficial 114, including 27 pedestrians.

But what makes the trend truly remarkable is that while the plan places no limits on ideas or visions, it has no direct policy-making authority.

"I would love to be able to say the plan is directly behind (the drop in deaths), but there's just no way to be certain with these things," says Dr. Sharon Vitousek, director of the North Hawaii Outcomes Project and a leader in efforts to cut traffic-related deaths on the Big Island, where the fatality rate has been historically higher than the state average.

"I think (the traffic-related death total) has dropped for multiple reasons," says Vitousek. "But I do strongly believe that the plan has helped tremendously by broadly increasing awareness of many of the problems."


Participants in the Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan agreed on seven "emphasis areas" and a range of strategies designed to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths in Hawaii to 100 or fewer a year by 2012. They are:

» Aggressive driving (speeding, passing on shoulders or solid lines, gesturing at other drivers). Among proposed solutions: use of wheel "boots" to immobilize cars of drivers whose licenses have been revoked; install cameras at dangerous intersections to catch drivers who run red lights.

» Impaired driving. Among proposed solutions: ignition interlock devices; install rumble strips on centerline and along shoulders, especially in rural areas.

» Protecting vehicle occupants. Among proposed solutions: ban passengers from beds of pickup trucks; step up nighttime enforcement of seatbelt compliance laws.

» Safeguarding pedestrians and bicyclists. Among proposed solutions: install cameras at dangerous intersections to catch drivers who run red lights; modify driver's license manual to include major section on safety and the motorist's responsibility toward pedestrians and bicyclists.

» Ensuring motorcycle and mo-ped safety. Among proposed solutions: enact universal helmet law.

» Building safer roadways by design. Among proposed solutions: install rumble strips on centerline and along shoulders, especially in rural areas; install or improve lighting at locations with a history of nighttime crashes; install delineators where the roadway alignment is confusing or unexpected.

» Improving data and safety management. Among proposed solutions: develop comprehensive safety management system using crash data to identify high-risk locations.

Source: Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan

Vitousek was an original participant in the plan, and was designated one of its four "champions," or leaders, along with then-Transportation Director Brennon Morioka, Honolulu police Assistant Chief Bryan Wauke and Dr. Linda Rosen, chief of the state Department of Health's Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention System. She and Rosen remain active participants.

The origin of the plan dates to 2005, when President George W. Bush signed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. "SAFETEA-LU," as it was referred to, required all states to develop highway safety plans in order to qualify for federal highway funds.

After laying the groundwork for a statewide partnership of safety advocates in 2006, the state DOT organized a kickoff summit for the five-year Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan in January 2007. The gathering involved more than 150 people, stakeholders from a broad-based consortium of interests including public safety, public health, law enforcement, the judiciary, highway design, private advocacy groups and data management.

DOT engineers were there. So were police officers, prosecutors and liquor control administrators from every county. Emergency responders. Bicycle leagues. The Federal Highway Administration. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. AARP. Insurance companies. Hospitals. Road construction contractors. Anyone with a stake in traffic safety, it seems, was in attendance.

Participants met in groups determined by their specialties and defined seven emphasis areas — aggressive driving, impaired driving, occupant protection, pedestrians and bicyclists, motorcycle and mo-ped safety, facility design, and data and safety management.

Impaired driving was an obvious target, with 39 percent of drivers involved in traffic fatalities testing positive for alcohol or drugs. But speeding was the No. 1 contributing factor in fatal crashes in Hawaii: 42 percent in motorcycles and 36 percent for motor vehicles.

By June, more than 100 strategies had been recommended for inclusion in the plan.

Some were common-sense solutions, such as stricter enforcement of seatbelt compliance laws, stepped-up impaired driver checkpoints or installation of rumble strips on poorly lit rural roads. Others were more prescient, such as MADD's signature project, an on-board breathalyzer that would prevent drivers convicted of DUI from starting their cars if they had been drinking. That initiative became law this year, shepherded through the Legislature by state Rep. Sharon Har, herself a victim of a drunken driver who smashed into her car three years ago.

But so much for the easy part.

"Strategies are great, but without implementation it's just a list," says participant Kari Benes, the traffic safety coordinator of the state Health Department's EMS.

Without policy-making authority, the plan depends on the long-term commitment of stakeholders to advocate in their areas of specialty to help push proposals through.

That means gathering participants on a regular basis — mostly on their own time — and providing them with a forum for exchanging information. Some emphasis committees meet monthly. A core committee of leaders meets every two months.

Updates on recommendations are provided on an online "scorecard" which tracks the progress of proposals, identifies which strategies need a boost and which are struggling to gain acceptance and may need to be reconsidered.

Now entering its fourth year, the project remains something of a logic-defying conglomerate in which stakeholders are in near-constant communication yet work independently toward a common goal.

It is, one state highway engineer noted, an example of how committed safety advocates are.

"It's about shared responsibility," Benes says. "Probably one of the biggest pet peeves is that people often look at plans like this and say, 'What good is it if it doesn't have legs?' Well, there is a charge behind the individuals here; they can move forward because they know they have a caucus that supports them.

"We know some of the strategies are now in the implementation stage, but it can be up to a couple of years before we actually see them happen. And things keep changing. I mean, five years ago, we had speculative data, but nothing hard, on the dangers of (driving while using) cell-phones and handheld devices. So we're always streamlining priorities."

To add more weight to the plan's recommendations, yet another committee was recently created — the Strategic Alliance for Roadway Safety, or STARS, made up of the heads of agencies such as the health and transportation departments and county police chiefs. There also is talk of revising the highway safety plan and creating a second phase after 2012.

Participant Arkie Koehl of MADD says state Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the public safety committee, is a strong backer of the highway safety plan.

This year, Espero is sponsoring or co-sponsoring a number of traffic-related bills including mandatory training for alcohol servers; a prohibition on riding in pickup truck beds; wheel locks, or "boots," that would immobilize vehicles of drivers whose licenses have been revoked; and cameras at dangerous intersections that would photographs cars running red lights.

Vitousek says she'll be working with the Hawaii County Department of Public Works to improve use of data "to pinpoint where engineering interventions need to happen" on the Big Island's vast road and highway system, where 28 people lost their lives in 2010.

"What that's going to require is that police have a GPS system, so a location of an accident can be entered into a database," she says. "Right now, it's just a description — 'between mile marker 61 and 62' — which can be a long area. We can do a better job of pinpointing crashes."

Vitousek says she initially was skeptical about participating in the highway safety plan because she feared the state would do little more than the minimum required to receive federal funding. She says she has been impressed with the scope of the project and the quality of ideas and is excited to see some of the engineering strategies beginning to be implemented.

Benes also remains upbeat. All that matters, she says, are the falling numbers.

"Maybe we can't say that (the plan is) directly responsible," Benes says. "We know there are other factors. But we also know that public awareness has definitely increased and we know that the strategies in the plan have been proven to help reduce injuries and fatalities."

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