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Petition to Make Queen K Safer Gains Steam, Legislator Discusses Options

November 15, 2019, 1:43 PM HST
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Cassandra Ellis.

Moriah Smith-Kramer says the mothers of Kona have seen enough.

A member of the Facebook group Kona Moms, Smith-Kramer said the death of Cassandra Ellis in a horrific traffic collision Sunday — which left four young girls without a mother — created a groundswell of support among members to do something about the road design on a stretch of Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway that’s been responsible for numerous fatal accidents over the years.

The question that remained was what exactly that action should be?

“We can’t fix humans,” she said, “but we can fix the roads.”

Early suggestions included sign waving and outright protesting to address highway conditions the community want changed. But ultimately, the decision was made to create a petition and progress from there.

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The petition, created by Smith-Kramer via Change.org and available here, “demands” that the relevant authorities widen Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway to four lanes for the nearly 28-mile stretch north to Kawaihae and amend striping to make the entire length of the road a no-passing zone.

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“That might not be possible … but at least the area between the airport and the Four Seasons (Hualalai) where all these head-on fatalities seem to be happening, maybe they can start with that area,” she said.

“They need to evaluate the entire length of that road,” continued Kramer, a 27-year resident of Kona, saying that even turning/passing lanes added at key areas might make a marked improvement. “We have to figure it out. It can’t stay how it is. I’ve known so many who’ve died since high school. There have been so many over the years.”

Over the past 20 months, four people have lost their lives on the same stretch of road where Ellis died Sunday. In March of 2018, Trina Walker of Holualoa was killed in a three-vehicle crash at mile marker 83, seven miles from Sunday’s fatality.

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Cyclist Roy Johnson of Texas died in July of 2018 a couple miles shy of the turn to Four Seasons Hualalai. Michael Shine, 53, of Waikoloa, was killed in a single-vehicle crash in October of 2018 at mile marker 85. Further down the road at mile marker 35, Peter Sigrah, 50, of Kailua-Kona was struck by a vehicle while walking in March of 2018.

In May, Michael McCormick, 70, of Ocean View, was killed in a single-vehicle crash at mile marker 93.5. The list goes on.

HPD document fatal crash on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, Sunday afternoon. (PC: Lt. Edwin Buyten)

Smith-Kramer said once the necessary signatures are collected, she plans to approach Mayor Harry Kim, the Hawai‘i County Council and the State Department of Transportation (HDOT) and implore them all to take action. The highway is under State control and falls outside County jurisdiction.

“HDOT is reviewing the law enforcement reports involving this tragic incident,” spokesman Tim Sakahara wrote in an email to Big Island Now. “Our engineers and staff have been to the accident location to assess the area and our findings will help determine the best safety improvements for the route. We will work to finalize our review before the end of the month to determine the course of action.”

Smith-Kramer said she will also approach State legislators Rep. Nicole Lowen and Sen. Dru Kanuha to seek help in making the road design changes a priority at the legislative level.

Lowen, who represents Kona’s 6th District, said there have been recent conversations about widening the highway to both the north and south, although they’ve been focused more on the south due to the traffic bottleneck that exists there most days.

Widening to the north, which is what Smith-Kramer and the rest of the petitioners want, would actually be more feasible, Lowen continued. That’s because there is more state-owned land surrounding the current roadway in that direction. However, any actual construction would be years away from even commencing — at the earliest.

Currently, no Queen Ka‘ahumanu construction projects are funded. No environmental impact statements for a potential highway expansion have been conducted, and widening the highway from the Henry Street intersection to the Kona International Airport took decades to complete.

Gov. David Ige also committed years ago to clearing the backlog of repair and maintenance of current roads before undertaking new projects — a statement he’s not backed away from, Lowen said.

And even under state control, all highway projects in Hawai‘i are 80% federally-funded and must comply with federal highway guidelines.

Yet despite all the obstacles, Lowen said there is reason for tempered optimism.

A median, or a physical barrier down at least stretches of the highway where accidents have proven consistent and dangerous, might be a quicker solution.

Provided by Vision Zero Task Force

“Even if it’s just putting up a median strip, there’s a lot of back work that goes into that,” Lowen said. “But I definitely think that could help, and I would be supportive of it.”

The Hawai‘i County Vision Zero Task Force just recently released crash maps that pull together data to show the most dangerous places to drive, cycle and run/walk across the Big Island. Such data could be useful for decisions about highway barriers to protect as many people as possible.

But road design modifications aren’t the only way to make travel safer.

One thing the Legislature can do that’s not directly related to road construction projects, Lowen explained, is fund in-state drug testing laboratories for quicker turnaround times.

While it’s important to note that Abarcar has not been officially charged with any crimes — and that it is unknown if he had drugs in his system at the time of the collision, despite police reports that drugs were a suspected factor in the crash that killed Ellis — the issue of drug testing turnaround times is larger than one incident.

People suspected of driving under the influence of an intoxicant are allowed to drive until it’s proven that they were actually intoxicated at the time of the traffic incident in question.

Cutting down on the amount of time these suspects remain legal drivers, assuming evidence shows they were intoxicated, would increase public safety on roadways.

Lowen said Sunday’s collision has brought this issue to serious consideration, and that it’s something she’s been inquiring about.

“I think there is a pathway for that,” she said. “That’s actually something that could be helped by legislation.”

Smith-Kramer’s initial goal for the petition was 2,500 signatures. As of 8:30 a.m. Friday, less than three days since creating it, the petition was approaching 2,600 digital autographs — and counting.

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