County to establish task force in effort to curb traffic fatalities

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Vehicles maneuver down Makaala Street on Friday in Hilo.

Mayor Harry Kim signed a proclamation Friday announcing the county’s commitment to eliminating all traffic deaths and serious injuries on island roads.

In the hope of reducing traffic fatalities to zero, the county will establish a task force in the coming months to develop new traffic safety plans, ranging from traffic enforcement to road repair to education.

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The new approach to traffic safety is part of Vision Zero, a road traffic safety project aimed at eliminating traffic deaths.

“There is no acceptable number of traffic deaths,” said Tina Clothier, executive director of PATH Hawaii, a nonprofit dedicated to improving pedestrian and bicycle accessibility around Hawaii County.

Clothier said Vision Zero takes a different approach to traffic safety than traditional models, which accept a certain amount of fatalities and severe injuries as an inevitable fact of any traffic system. Vision Zero, meanwhile, is based around the idea that life and safety should not be compromised.

“We recognize that mistakes will happen,” Clothier said. “The system needs to be designed so those mistakes do not cause fatalities.”

The task force, which will include representatives of county and state agencies, as well as private organizations, will gather crash data from the Hawaii Police Department and first responders to determine which areas are more crash-prone, what can be done to rectify that and whether other areas have similar characteristics.

One such strategy will include reconsidering speed limits based on the context of the area, Clothier said as an example. While current speed limits are set based on the 85th percentile principle — that is, the speed limit is set at a speed that 85 percent of traffic drives slower than — Vision Zero would implement speed limits on a case-by-case basis and change them depending on the likelihood of a crash.

Other options for improvements include simple additions such as speed cameras in high-risk areas, which includes school zones, Clothier said.

Michael Yee, director of the Hawaii County Planning Department, said a timeline for when changes can be implemented will be forthcoming after the formation of the task force, but added that simple changes such as adding or removing stop signs could be implemented within the next few months.

Yee said determining which sites are in the most need of changes has yet to be fleshed out, but said he knows anecdotally of several places that are prone to traffic crashes, such as Makaala Street east of Highway 11.

“I was driving through Puna — and I don’t know the name of the road — but on the way down, I saw there was an accident at one intersection, and on the way back, there had been a different accident at the exact same intersection,” Yee said. “So I called the Department of Transportation, and they were like, ‘Oh, it must have been so-and-so road.’”

Clothier said that attitude toward crashes — as an inevitable fact of certain areas — costs a significant amount of money, money that could be better spent preventing accidents rather than reacting to them.

Vision Zero plans were first implemented in Sweden and have since been adopted throughout Europe and in several cities in the U.S.

Clothier said New York City, which adopted a Vision Zero plan five years ago, reported the lowest amount of traffic fatalities in 2018 since records of traffic fatalities began in 1910.

While Clothier acknowledged the difference between a metropolis such as New York City and the rural Big Island, she pointed out that in 2018 Hawaii Island had the highest traffic fatality rate per capita in the state. Thirty-two people were killed in car crashes on the island last year, and already two fatalities have occurred this year.

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“I have a personal interest in the project,” Yee said. “I have a 4-year-old. I want him to be safe.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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