Roberts Hawaii, the state’s largest tours and transportation company, has seen a spike in fatal collisions recently, making up 40 percent of all fatal commercial vehicle collisions so far this year and 30 percent last year.
Since February of last year, there have been five fatal collisions by Roberts Hawaii drivers statewide. Two of five fatal commercial vehicle collisions in the islands this year have involved Roberts Hawaii, while three out of 11 fatals involved the company in 2009, according to media reports and information from the state Department of Transportation. All the victims have been pedestrians or bicyclists.
Under state law a commercial vehicle either weighs more than 12 tons, has the capacity for 16 or more occupants or transports hazardous materials.
Four Roberts drivers in fatal collisions remain under investigation, while one has been convicted of third-degree negligent homicide.
In response, Roberts said safety is a priority and that its drivers are properly licensed, tested and trained beyond requirements, while its vehicles are properly maintained. By e-mail, a spokesman also noted that the company operates more than 800 vehicles, including school buses, that make thousands of trips statewide each day.
The company continues to have a satisfactory rating, the best of three ratings, by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which last inspected Roberts Hawaii in 2005.
Sharon Cravalho, division administrator for the agency, said it cannot review every company annually, but does review a company when the agency’s system detects too many risk factors, such as a high fatality count. She said she could not disclose whether the agency is reviewing Roberts Hawaii.
The agency checks seven categories, such as driver requirements, maintenance, insurance, drug and alcohol testing, and the accident rate. She said that although the agency takes fatalities seriously, looking at only fatalities is not a complete picture of how a company is doing.
The latest fatality occurred Sept. 3 when Taryn Wright, 21, of Honolulu was struck while riding a bicycle in a crosswalk on Dillingham Boulevard. The bus driver made a right turn onto Waiakamilo Road, hitting her, police said.
She died at the hospital of multiple traumatic injuries. Police said the crash, which did not involve speed or alcohol, remains under investigation.
The driver, a 72-year-old man, has been placed on administrative leave, a Roberts spokesman said.
Of the five drivers involved in fatal collisions, only Newman A. Lipahi was convicted. Lipahi pleaded no contest in July in connection with the death of 65-year-old Richard Tasaka.
He was convicted of third-degree negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, which usually signifies failure to use standard care and caution, a Honolulu prosecutor’s spokesman said.
Lipahi hit Tasaka in a crosswalk while making a left turn onto Beretania Street in February 2009. He received a year of probation and was ordered to pay minimal fines, and his driver’s license was suspended, the spokesman said. Lipahi has a hearing today to ask that the conviction be wiped from his record after he completes probation.
Two other fatal cases involving Roberts have been investigated as third-degree negligent homicides, and prosecutors are still deciding whether to file charges:
» A 35-year-old female driver hit Phoebe Fe Gagarin, 54, who was in a crosswalk on North School Street, while turning left from Gulick Avenue in June 2009.
» A 66-year-old male driver hit Leo Nekus, 81, and his wife in a crosswalk on Honoapiilani Highway on Maui on March 13, 2009. Nekus died 10 days later but his wife survived.
Along with Wright’s case, one more fatal collision remains under police investigation. In that case a 67-year-old woman driving a Roberts Hawaii school bus carrying about 40 children hit Michelle Kim, 65, on University Avenue in February.
The Roberts spokesman said that in the first four collisions, no drugs or alcohol were found in the drivers, and no mechanical malfunctions were found. There was no speeding, no running of red lights or stop signs, and no driver distractions were involved, Roberts said.
Meanwhile, Roberts has added more driver safety meetings in the past year and plans to add on-board cameras and GPS tracking to improve safety, the company said.
Some drivers who hit people request not to drive again because of the mental and emotional toll, while others leave the company, a company spokesman said. Of the drivers involved in collisions, one has quit, two remain employed as nondrivers and two are still on administrative leave.
CORRECTION: A previous story on Sept. 27 misspelled the last name of Richard Tasaka, who died after being hit by a Roberts Hawaii bus.