Drivers pause to hear DUI tragedies
Drunken-driving arrests are 22 percent higher on the Big Isle than at this time last year
WAIKOLOA, Hawaii » West Hawaii resident Theresa "Gigi" Macion watched the shock across the faces of motorists as she told them how her brother, Honolulu police officer Danny Padayao, was killed by a drunken driver on Oahu in May 2001 -- followed nine weeks later by the death of her sister, Nani Fernandez, caused by a Big Island drunken driver.
In Hilo, Sandra Todd told motorists how her son, Steve Rapoza, was killed by a drunken and drugged driver in 1996.
"I'll never get over it. There's never any closure," Todd said.
Todd and Macion told their stories at informational roadblocks in Hilo and Waikoloa over the Labor Day weekend. Waikoloa motorists were also given bottled water and pieces of watermelon.
Despite past tragedies, new statistics are encouraging.
Big Island drunken-driving arrests this year are up 22 percent compared with the same time last year. Traffic fatalities are about the same: 27 this year compared with 28 at this time last year. But alcohol was involved in only about a fourth of this year's fatalities, compared with about half in prior years.
"I think we're doing pretty good," said Sgt. Dexter Veriato, in charge of police statistics. But he added, instead of drunken people dying, sober people are dying.
Dr. Sharon Vitousek, who wrote a 2003 study of Big Island traffic deaths, was cautious about enforcement numbers.
"Does this mean that it's working? I can't tell you for sure," she said.
At least deaths are not rising. "We're flat while other counties are quite a bit higher," Vitousek said. Oahu traffic deaths through August were 65, compared with 53 at the same time last year. Maui was at 13, compared with eight last year. Kauai jumped to 11 from three last year.
Still, the Big Island traffic death rate was about three times higher than on Oahu when compared with population, Vitousek discovered in 2003.
Part of the problem is clogged roads, Veriato said. In 2003-2005 the island's population went up 5.5 percent, but the number of vehicles jumped 25 percent, he said.
In 2005 there were 162,721 vehicles for 167,293 people.
Veriato focused on alcohol. The Big Island was spending about $60,000 a year on drunken-driving roadblocks, he said. This year, police plowed through $37,000 in roadblock money in just four months, then ran out. Veriato got another federal-state grant for $40,000.
Another problem nearly nullifies enforcement. In 2003, a typical year, there were 1,051 drunken-driving arrests but only 829 people charged and a mere 270 convicted.
A major reason, Veriato said, is that people can demand a time-consuming blood test instead of a breath test.
Suspects are released until test results come in, then arrest warrants are issued. Suspects simply disappear until the warrants expire, Veriato said. A multiagency Impaired Driving Task Force is looking into the problem.
Some suspects might treat avoiding warrants like a game. Macion and Todd remind people the game can be deadly.
Macion recalls the deaths of her brother and sister. "It turned my life upside down. It's still crazy," she said.
Todd added, "If we save even one life, I'll be happy."