Big Island traffic deaths
lead to call for action

A growing community that leads the state
in per-capita fatalities is searching for answers

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii >> West Hawaii residents have long grumbled about traffic congestion, but a rising death toll has turned attention to the state two-lane highway that runs relatively straight and flat through the barren lava fields of North Kona and South Kohala.

Of the 41 traffic deaths reported in 2004, eight occurred on Queen Kaahumanu Highway between Kailua-Kona and the intersection of Waikoloa Beach Road. Three of the dead were under age 20.

Less than one month into the new year, there have already been four fatalities, including a prominent community activist whose death might spur more action this year.

Environmental activist Jerry Rothstein, his librarian wife Judith, and a couple from Minnesota were killed in a head-on collision Jan. 23. On Dec. 30, 17-year-old Sarah Rosenberg, student body president at Kealakehe High School, was killed in a multi-vehicle accident along the same stretch of highway.

"We've lost three of our leaders (Rosenberg and the Rothsteins)," said Rep. Josh Green (D, North Kona). "The status quo isn't good enough anymore. The state is willing to help us; they just need to hear us. We need concrete, immediate changes."

Highway safety typically depends on three factors that involve the state, the county and the community: engineering, enforcement and education.

While poor driving habits -- inattention, speeding or unsafe overtaking -- likely contributed to the string of accidents, the highway is recognized as inadequate for the growing population of West Hawaii.

It is one of two roads running north-south and is the major thoroughfare from residential areas south of Kailua-Kona to jobs at the luxury Kohala Coast resorts and for transporting goods to and from Kawaihae Harbor further to the north.

An upper roadway, Mamalahoa Highway, is also two lanes, but is narrower and winding, forcing slower speeds. Between Kailua-Kona and Waimea, five roads connect the two highways.

For two decades, the state has planned to widen the lower highway, Queen Kaahumanu Highway, to four lanes.

The project began in earnest eight years ago and the first phase, about four miles from Kailua-Kona to the Kealakehe Parkway intersection near the 98-mile marker, is slated to begin by year's end at a cost of $25 million, said state Department of Transportation Director Rodney Haraga. The second phase, extending to Kona Airport near the 92-mile marker, will cost $30 million.

"We have to start from town out. That's where the people are, the congestion," said transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa. "We still need more funding for the rest."

At a recent Kona Traffic Safety Committee meeting, nearly three dozen people met with Haraga, urging the highway be divided by a row of monkeypod trees.

But Haraga said installing immovable objects, such as trees, in medians is prohibited by highway safety guidelines. A concrete divider would be prohibitive because of the highway's length. And medians mean extra construction costs, might pose land acquisition problems, and need more complicated intersections and emergency turnarounds.

Enforcement of traffic laws, meanwhile, rests with the county.

Chronically understaffed in West Hawaii, police already are forced to juggle emergency calls.

Mayor Harry Kim said the Big Island leads the state in traffic fatalities per capita. Although state statistics for 2004 still are being compiled, the Big Island, with 35 deaths, was second only to Oahu's 81 deaths in 2003. For that year, Maui recorded 15 deaths and Kauai had five.

The county is always looking to make Big Island roads safer, Kim said.

"There is no one fix," Kim said. "We should focus on the causes of these horrible, horrible accidents. Everyone has to look at their area of responsibility as we strive to make the highways safer."

That includes beefing up enforcement and encouraging better driving habits, he said.

"Drivers should pay attention, be alert and conscious of what they're doing," said police Maj. John Dawrs, stationed in West Hawaii. "They should not be paying attention to kids in the back, their cell phones or whatever.

"If you're tired -- and I understand that, with the long commutes people have every day -- just pull over. You're not going to get a ticket. Nothing is more important than concentrating on driving."

State and county officials and several community groups are working on education and enforcement programs to deter speeding on the long stretch of highway.

Haraga said he's encouraged the community wants to do its part to cut down the number of accidents along Queen Kaahumanu Highway.

"If I could get it down to zero, I certainly would," he said. "I've told the community this is my pet project and I will see it gets done. But if we can find solutions, a real quick fix, why not just do it?"

State Department of Transportation

County of Hawaii

E-mail to City Desk


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