Monday, April 25, 2005

Traffic fatalities increase
in Hawaii

Officials credit state programs with
cracking down on drunken driving

More people died in traffic crashes last year in Hawaii than any time in the previous eight years, according to the latest state Department of Transportation statistics.

A total of 142 people died in traffic crashes across the state in 2004 -- the highest number since 148 people were killed in 1996. Last year, there were 70 fatalities on Oahu, 41 on the Big Island, 10 on Kauai and 21 in Maui County.

In 2003 there were 133 traffic fatalities statewide. The number of pedestrian deaths have also increased, to 31 last year from 23 in 2003.

The number of deaths due to drunken drivers, however, dropped last year compared with 2003.

There were 54 alcohol-related deaths in 2004 compared with 71 total deaths caused by those driving under the influence in 2003.

"The good news is that alcohol-related fatalities went down," said DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa. "The bad news is that overall traffic fatalities went up.

"We need to look at what other factors are involved, such as speed or inattention to driving, and pinpoint what's happening."

Ishikawa said April has not been a good month, with 13 traffic fatalities statewide. "We've had 46 traffic fatalities so far this year (through Thursday) as compared to 52 at the same time last year."

Nationally the projected fatality rate and the projected number of alcohol-related crashes are down for 2004 compared with 2003, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The preliminary report states that 42,800 people died on the nation's highways in 2004, up slightly from 42,643 in 2003.

Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called the problem of highway traffic deaths a "national epidemic" and encouraged Americans to view wearing seat belts as a form of preventive medicine.

"If this many people were to die from any one disease in a single year, Americans would demand a vaccine," Mineta said. "The irony is we already have the best vaccine available to reduce the death toll on our highways: safety belts."

NHTSA's report projects a fatality rate of 1.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a drop from a record low of 1.48 in 2003, Mineta said.

Locally, Ishikawa said the state plans to focus on implementing more programs such as Click-it or Ticket, and Walk Wise Kupuna, in order to heighten seat belt safety and pedestrian safety awareness.

Ishikawa believes similar programs that cracked down on drunken drivers helped to bring down the number of alcohol-related fatalities this year compared with last year.

"Those programs started late in the year, too," he said. "We have yet to see the results after they're in operation over the entire year."

Mineta said that traffic crashes come at an enormous cost to society: as much as $230.6 billion a year, or about $820 per person, according to NHTSA numbers.

"Sadly, traffic crashes continue to be the leading cause of death in American children and young adults," said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge. "While seat belt use, at 80 percent, is at an all-time high, we could save thousands more lives each year if everyone buckled up."

The report also projects the seventh straight yearly increase in motorcycle fatalities. In 2004, 3,927 motorcyclists died nationwide, a 7.3 percent increase over 2003 when there were 3,661 motorcycle fatalities.

In Hawaii, motorcycle deaths went up slightly to 21 in 2004 from 19 in 2003.

"The advice we have for the driving public is to drive defensively and not aggressively," said Ishikawa.

The NHTSA's numbers are based upon projected data which is subject to change when data from the full year for 2004 is made available this summer. The final 2004 report will be available in August.

Summaries of the preliminary report (NHTSA)

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