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Don't relent on traffic safety

LAST UPDATED: 2:22 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Pedestrian safety ultimately comes down to awareness. Anyone crossing a thoroughfare or stepping into traffic for any reason should look back and forth to become aware of vehicles coming their way. Drivers must be alert to pedestrians, checking ahead and on the periphery.

So the pedestrian safety awareness campaign launched by the state Department of Transportation represents a needed element in Hawaii's efforts to curb what has become an unacceptable record of pedestrian fatalities. The death toll had been coming down since 2005 until a sudden spike last year, which proves two key points: The state's work on pedestrian safety has only just begun.

And, while a safety education promotion will help, it is a supplement, not a substitute for placing a clear focus on designing roadways for pedestrian safety.

August has been proclaimed as Pedestrian Safety Awareness Month, and the state's ongoing Walk Wise Hawaii program has planned a series of events to convey the message to pedestrians and motorists. They will range from community sign-waving efforts to talks at senior citizen groups — the emphasis on elders because they are the most vulnerable. Of the 27 fatalities in 2010, 10 were seniors.

So far an unofficial tally being kept by the state Department of Health Injury Prevention and Control Program shows nine pedestrian deaths this year, four of them people 65 or older. That statistical pattern is why the safety issue has become a central concern of groups such as the AARP, and the retirees advocacy group has partnered with the state injury prevention program and the Hawaii Bicycling League to push for lasting improvements to state and city byways.

For these groups, the campaign will spill into September, when they will sponsor events with an assist from the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. Dan Burden, the institute's executive director, in town for a conference, also plans to meet with advocates to plan how to advance pedestrian safety in Hawaii, said Jackie Boland, the AARP's associate state director.

The state took a critical step in the right direction two years ago by passing Act 54, in which Hawaii adopted a "Complete Streets" policy similar to those in effect in other states. The policy requires that design and construction of transportation facilities is done with all users — including pedestrians and cyclists — in mind.

But much of the work of roadway design falls to counties, so advocates will begin mobilizing a push for "Complete Streets" policies at the county level, too. The City and County of Honolulu made a move in that direction in 2006 by amending the City Charter to include this language: "Should one of the priorities of the Department of Transportation Services be to make Honolulu a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city, and should the powers, duties and functions of the Director of Transportation Services include bikeway systems?"

However, without a policy in place that will direct the city administration to build safer streets, the charter amendment has no teeth. Safety improvements often can be made with relatively small investments, but they need to be planned at the earliest stages.

Today's launch of Pedestrian Safety Awareness Month provides the opportunity to reach more people about the importance of being alert at the points where drivers and pedestrians intersect. But education is continual process, one that should go hand in hand with the design and construction of streets and highways where provisions for safety are built right in.

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