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One of Big Island’s Deadliest Months on Record: Inside the Numbers

December 12, 2019, 3:59 PM HST
* Updated December 12, 4:15 PM
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A passerby caught a glimpse of the fatal collision, Sunday afternoon. (PC: Nancy Leihulu Durmas)

November 2019 was one of the most lethal months on Big Island roadways in recent memory, with seven lives lost as a direct result of traffic collisions.

The issue first boiled over when Cassandra Lynn Ellis, a 35-year-old mother of four, was killed in a head-on collision on Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway Nov. 10.

Fear, anger and calls to action from the public have driven discussion and debate, as the conversation around road safety has captured the collective consciousness of the Hawai‘i Island community.

As is common when tragedy strikes so frequently and in such quick succession, concerned individuals have sought an explanation. Assertions of lackluster traffic enforcement on the part of police and an uptick in impaired drivers littered comment sections across social media. But when seeking answers, it’s pertinent to ask the appropriate question.

Are Big Island roads growing more dangerous, or is a tragic statistical anomaly simply reminding us of how treacherous those roads have always been?

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Historical Context

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The rash of traffic deaths over the last several weeks — the most immediate of which occurred Wednesday on Highway 11 in Puna — points to a problem spiraling out of control.

Yet examination of recent statistical trends show Big Island traffic fatalities aren’t on the rise. In fact, they’re down. And compared to the last three years, they’re down significantly.

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

According to statistics from the Hawai‘i Police Department, a total of 32 people died on Big Island roadways in each of the last three years. Wednesday’s fatality rose the 2019 total to 24 traffic deaths with fewer than three weeks remaining on the calendar.

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The 32 deaths registered in 2016 were the result of 27 fatal crashes. The next two years produced identical numbers — 32 deaths as a result of 30 fatal crashes each.

Like the number of deaths, the tally of deadly collisions that cause them are also down from the previous three years, standing at a current total of 24 in 2019.

As of Nov. 3, just a few days before Wayne W. Geil was killed while riding his bicycle in Hilo, only 16 people had died on Big Island roads in 2019 — 10 fewer than at the same time one year prior.

HPD Assistant Chief Robert Wagner has been policing Hawai‘i Island for decades. He said to describe the brutal highway events of November as a calamitous return to the mean isn’t necessarily correct.

“Numbers do not always balance off,” he said. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they stay low. Sometimes they jump up higher than ever before.”

Contributing Factors

The general formula for predicting traffic collisions is relatively straightforward, even if the specific variables are impossible to quantify with precision.

More cars on the road means more people behind the wheel. More people behind the wheel means more potential for human error. More sources of human error — DUI, smartphones, fatigue — result in more driving mistakes, a percentage of which will inevitably result in death.

The number of registered vehicles on the Big Island has ebbed and flowed, but progressed steadily upward since 2010.

That year, more than 180,000 vehicles registered with the County, according to statistics provided by the Vehicle Registration and Licensing Division. In 2018, the number of registered vehicles was 213,465.

Graphic courtesy of the County of Hawaii Vehicle Licensing and Registration Division.

 

 

As the number of drivers on the roads has risen, it’s also important to question whether they’re driving any safer.

“Three of the major reasons for traffic fatalities are speeding, (not wearing a) seat belt and impaired driving (drugs/alcohol),” Wagner said.

Smart phones and speeding are ubiquitous, and BIN was not able to collect data on drivers wearing seat belts. As for DUIs, impairment contributed to 19 traffic deaths three years ago, 13 deaths two years back and 19 deaths last year.

The number of DUI citations ranged from 1,095 to 1,160 between 2016 and 2018. As of Dec. 11, 2019, HPD had issued 1,014 citations for DUI — a decrease of four tickets from the same time last year.

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

Thus, while intoxication remains the primary source of Big Island roadway death, it hasn’t increased measurably year over year and can’t explain away the eight traffic fatalities suffered in Hawai‘i County over a 36-day period spanning November and December.

“DUI drivers kill innocent people every day,” Wagner said. “There has been no law in the State of Hawai’i that has deterred drunk driving effectively.”

“The numbers don’t go down,” he continued. “People generally are not motivated enough to stop this practice.”

A new law that went into effect on July 1 stiffens penalties against drunk drivers significantly. House Bill 703 allows prosecutors to charge violators with habitual DUI after two convictions inside of 10 years. That’s a change from the prior law, which required three violations in a decade to bring a charge of habitual DUI.

The law increases fines and license revocation periods for habitual offenders, subjects their vehicles to possible forfeiture and opens them up to a potential five-year prison sentence. Formerly, the penalty was likely probation.

“It increases financial penalties from hundreds to thousands of dollars. It increases the period of license revocation from months to years and increases penalties for repeat offenders from likely probation to likely jail time,” House Judiciary Chairman Chris Lee told the Hawaii Tribune Herald in late July.

Putting it on police

While DUIs are a constant menace to the well-being of Big Island motorists, drunk driving statistics are more or less consistent year over year and can’t explain away November’s spike in traffic deaths. Neither can the number of drivers on the road.

A third common sentiment is that police patrols are ignoring their districts in favor of Mauna Kea, where officers have been stationed since mid-July when demonstrators began blocking Mauna Kea Access Road to stop the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Increased traffic enforcement on the mountain has resulted in thousands of citations and dozens of arrests. Wagner disagreed with contentions that police efforts on Daniel K. Inouye Highway have made other roads more dangerous.

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

“We have no noticeable decreases or increases in our districts’ traffic enforcement for the past six months,” he said. “When all the enforcement was going on steadily on the mountain, for months there was an absence/low occurrence of traffic fatalities.”

“And if you want to relate it to enforcement on the mountain, it is known that increasing traffic enforcement decreases traffic fatalities,” Wagner continued. “So if anything, our island has seen an overall increase in traffic enforcement due to (activities) on the mountain.”

Bill Robinson, a Big Island resident and father of three who occasionally drives for Uber, doesn’t believe police enforcement strategies are to blame for the uptick in deadly collisions since November.

“I don’t think that the Mauna presence has anything to do with the accidents,” Robinson said. “People drove like idiots even before the protest. We’ve had all these issues on the roads for years.”

“I believe inattentiveness and people being in a hurry is the biggest reason but others as well, such as impaired driving or tired driving,” he continued.

Whatever the cause of the recent rash of roadway deaths, Robinson is more concerned for the safety of his family than before and more aware of the dangers potentially waiting around every corner.

“I’ve had driving jobs for 20 something years, and I’ve seen first hand the dangers on our roadways,” Robinson said. “I’ve witnessed about 15 accidents firsthand. Half of those fatal.

“It is definitely getting worse,” he continued. “Cell phone distractions, inattentiveness and people not caring all are factors of that.”

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