Improving pedestrian safety is complicated business, but by most metrics, Hawaii is not yet doing a good job of it.
From the perspective of an avid walker like Kim Throckmorton, there are lots of spots in the city that aren’t very pedestrian-friendly. Throckmorton lives near the Ala Wai and often uses that pleasant landscaped promenade, but near the Hawaii Convention Center there isn’t always a crosswalk where one is needed.
"There, I jaywalk all the time, and so does everybody else," she admitted.
Statistically, the picture seems to have improved but is still dim. Pedestrian accidents, fatal and nonfatal, have dropped in the last few years, according to state Department of Health figures. In 2009, 17 pedestrians were killed, down from 22 the year before and 37 the year before that – which is also the high mark for the decade.
Still, in the most recent national studies, Hawaii has the eighth-highest fatality rate overall and the highest – by far – for the elderly group, according to state figures.
Hawaii recorded 40.2 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people 65 years and older, nearly three times the national rate.
In particular, a cluster of fatalities and injuries occurring at crosswalks has raised the level of concern here by several notches.
And in Washington, the feds know all about Hawaii’s hazards. The Federal Highway Administration has identified this state as one of 12 with particularly high rates of pedestrian fatalities and, as such, in need of extra funding for planning and upgrades.
Federal support is a boon to efforts at state and county levels, where transportation officials are busily testing various approaches and completing master plans that will guide the way intersections and crosswalks get improved.
But in the meantime, they’re feeling the pressure to act quickly on one of the more critical danger zones: Pali Highway. The state Department of Transportation is weighing whether to remove crosswalks and bus stops along its upper stretch where more than a dozen accidents have occurred over a 10-year span.
The problem is that some of the most heavily used crosswalks are
between signalized intersections, such as those at Ahipuu Street and Dowsett Avenue, where many walkers are crossing the busy Pali to reach a bus stop on the other side.
Some people believe the better solution lies in adding signals to the crosswalks, which are activated by a pedestrian who wants to cross. Transportation agencies are testing variations of these, with much of the improvement to affect roadways under county, not state, jurisdiction. One design embeds lights in the pavement and another, with a raised lighted sign, with costs ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.
Wayne Yoshioka, director of the city Department of Transportation Services, said the former technology is best suited for a site with traffic of moderate volume and speed. That’s why it was installed last spring at the mid-block crosswalk facing the Kapalama post office.
Brennon Morioka, director of the state Department of Transportation, has his eye on the latter design to make the state’s heavier-traffic highways safer. It’s a solar-powered "rapid flash beacon" that sits atop a standard yellow crosswalk sign.
A prime candidate is the crosswalk near the bus stops on opposite sides of Kamehameha Highway near Pali Golf Course and Hawaii Pacific University’s Kaneohe campus. Students often cross there, he said, and with cars accelerating around the bend at Castle Junction, conditions can be hazardous.
Yoshioka said upkeep could be a costly concern. Vandals have repeatedly damaged signalized crosswalks, and rolling out new installations across the state would be vulnerable to that as well.
In addition, some less expensive projects show promise. A reflective sign has been placed in the middle of the thoroughfare at crosswalks on East Manoa Road and elsewhere, designed to catch the attention of drivers as they approach.
"Especially in two-lane roadways, those are fairly effective," Yoshioka said. "The vertical format as you come down East Manoa Road makes people slow down."
Yoshioka said the city is taking in "wide feedback" on such projects. Jackie Boland certainly hopes so. As associate state director for the AARP, Boland has been tracking such developments carefully. Officials need to give them a thorough testing in various environments, she said, and they must work collaboratively, sharing their data. For example, she cited anecdotal reports from neighbor island trials indicating that the pavement lights are hard to see when it rains.
But there has been encouraging progress toward pedestrian safety, at least at the policy level. Morioka cites the Complete Streets law passed in 2009, which requires roadway improvements to address the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists.
State law enhanced its protections of pedestrians in crosswalks in 2005, giving pedestrians right of way when they are in or dangerously close to the side of a crosswalk approached by a driver. Since then the state has conducted its Walk Wise Hawaii public education campaign to educate pedestrians how to protect themselves.
Every blueprint for Hawaii’s future seems to envision wider transportation options. That’s why proposals such as eliminating rather than improving crosswalks on the Pali trouble Boland. Such a move would deter older people, who already struggle to cope in the unsignalized crosswalks, from taking public transportation, she said.
"Walking an extra quarter-mile for an older person is a big burden," Boland said. "You can’t just eliminate transportation options for people."