Sunday, December 11, 2011


Hawaii does not have to be a pedestrian deathtrap—let’s demand changes at the top

A typical traffic signal is not appropriate for the crosswalk because it is close to the heavily traveled Castle Junction intersection at Pali and Kamehameha highways, and because the area in front of HPU did not meet the minimum requirement of five pedestrian "incidents" in a 12-month period—Department of Transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl

by Larry Geller

I used the same pullquote in Confirmed: Hawaii requires human sacrifice before installing traffic signals (11/22/2011). It just keeps coming back to me as I check out intersections or simply walk or drive around Honolulu. As I see a car turning right even though there is a little sign (and “little” is the operative word here) that clearly says “No Right Turn on Red” I wonder if the intersection has racked up enough “incidents” to justify a larger or more effective warning sign.

Hey ... read this:

Figures Show Pedestrian Safety Initiative is Working

Data recently presented by the Transportation and Police departments to CountyStat indicate that -- thanks to County Executive Ike Leggett’s Pedestrian Safety Initiative -- pedestrian collisions and the severity of collisions are heading downward. The initiative was released in December 2007.

One of the biggest successes of the Initiative has been the Safe Routes to School program where engineering improvements, bolstered by education and enforcement actions, at more than 50 schools have reduced pedestrian collisions by about 78 percent when comparing collision statistics from three years before the improvements with the time period after the improvements.

A key strategy of the Pedestrian Safety Initiative is also to target engineering, education and enforcement activities on County roadways with the highest number of pedestrian collisions, or the High Incidence Areas (HIAs). Since the first HIA safety audit was conducted in 2008, HIA collisions, as a percent of total pedestrian collisions in the County, have decreased from 10 percent to four percent in 2010.

CountyStat conducts periodic reviews of the components of the Pedestrian Safety Initiative that have played a critical and valuable role in the program to ensure that effective strategies are being employed to improve pedestrian safety.

No, that description is not from anyplace in Hawaii. It’s a county report from Maryland.


After several years testifying at the Legislature or working with different groups to reduce the carnage on Honolulu’s streets and roads, I have come to one firm conclusion:

It is time for the management of our state and county departments of transportation to decide they need to spend more time with their families.

(I learned this approach from our Governor.)

Perhaps throw in law enforcement that refuses to enforce laws protecting pedestrians in or out of the crosswalks.

Why such harsh words for our civil servants?

Thirty-one States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had reductions in the number of traffic fatalities in 2010 when compared to 2009, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released last Thursday. Hawaii was not among those 31 states. Hawaii’s traffic fatalities increased 3.7% in that time. By that and other measures, whatever Hawaii is doing, if anything, is not working.

Let’s examine the problem in more detail.

°  We don’t have a Pedestrian Safety Initiative that reduces death and injuries

In fact, we do next to nothing to reduce death and injuries (nothing effective, that is).

At best, we apply solutions (after, it seems, sufficient “incidents” are recorded) on a one-off basis. There is no program in place that will effectively reduce death and injury. Year after year the numbers put Hawaii at the top of senior citizen deaths, for example. The statistics simply appear in the newspaper, are forgotten after a few days, and then we wait for next year’s numbers. There’s no magic that makes the numbers go down. Either we do something or the carnage continues.

It’s about time that DOT and HPD were held accountable, that they put a program with measurements and controls in place, and yes, that there be consequences for not achieving reasonable success as measured by reasonable improvement.

I’m sure that there are transportation engineers in Maryland who would love to have job offers to work in Honolulu. Or elsewhere. Dear Governor: you can find someone who can do the job I hope.

Far from having a pro-active program, it appears that neither DOT nor the police take adequate action even when trouble spots are identified. As an example, there was a similar flurry of brief attention around a Makaha “incident.” Like the recent death of a student at HPU, it faded rapidly from press attention:

Neither [newspaper] story mentioned that the DOT knew of the dangers of this crosswalk but has failed to take measures to protect pedestrians. In August 2001 a flashing crosswalk system was installed at that intersection according to this article, but the system was later removed. The installation was described in a DOT press release.

The AARP survey conducted in May 2006 and released in August included monitoring of an intersection near Waianae High School (pictured above), which is one or two away from the Alawa Place scene of the fatal accident. AARP found (at the crosswalk they monitored, which was controlled by traffic signals) that "drivers do not obey traffic signals," that drivers "seem to be speeding," that "car speeds are too fast." The monitors observed "unsafe driver behavior." The monitors also found problems with crossing lights that were too short for people of normal physical ability and other major problems at the nearby intersection they monitored.

The same drivers who speed through the nearby monitored intersection zoom through the Alawa Place intersection, it seems.

Since the publication of the study it appears that the DOT has done nothing to improve the unsafe conditions identified by the AARP. At testimony at the State Capitol, the best DOT could do was to ask for $1 million dollars to hire a consultant for a study that would delay action until 2010.

[Makaha death underlines failure of police, Dept. of Transportation, to protect citizens, 2/28/2007]

We’ll get to enforcement issues later.

DOT’s request to legislators for $1 million for a study was arbitrary and capricious. They did not have quotes from consultants in their pockets. There is no plan, folks, other than continued employment of ineffective public officials.

It’s not as though there have not been consultants reports. Here’s a report from 2004. I was amused to see that it recognized Honolulu’s problem right at the top:

Beyond Information. Intelligence

I think that’s the slogan of SMS, the firm that did the research, but it describes the Hawaii attitude quite well interpreted as it is written.

The report included this graph of survey responses, for example, on the subject of crosswalk timing (click for larger):

Crosswalk timing

So in 2004, DOT (state and county) knew that 55-57% of participants in this group agreed that older walkers do not have enough time to get across the street. So what did DOT do with this information?

At the legislative testimony where DOT officials asked for their million bucks for someone to tell them what to do, they responded to a question about short crosswalk timing by reporting that they planned to install pedestrian signals with countdown timers. There’s no opportunity at these hearings for the public to react. Many of us in the audience were incredulous. Did they think countdown timers will help Granny cross faster? Now the countdown timers are in place, but they have not cured anyone’s arthritis that I am aware of.

Here’s a personal anecdote. I was crossing Beretania St. one bright sunny day. Ahead of me was an older man, walking with a cane. Part way across he dropped something—it looked like an eyeglass case. He turned around to look at it, and I saw the panic on his face. Should he bend down to pick it up and risk getting hit by cars later, or should he abandon it and not risk his life? I went toward him to assist as he did bend down to slowly pick it up, then the two of us proceeded across. I walked with him at his speed. Of course, the light changed to green well before we got to the other side. The cars waited patiently. That time.

° Our engineering and maintenance (signs, signals, crosswalks, road design, etc.) sucks

Crosswalk visibility

“When you cross in a crosswalk with a light, cars will stop 99% of the time. When you cross on a street that just has a crosswalk, cars don’t stop for several reasons. One, the crosswalks aren’t painted properly, and many are in very poor condition. Two, they don’t have signs pointing that there are crosswalks in the area… The signs will stay in better condition than the paint on the road.”

“Crosswalks can be anywhere. Sometimes the markings wear off and there’s no sign showing that there’s one there.”

“When it rains, you can’t see the crosswalks with the lights.”

“You know, you can’t see crosswalks at night. They should use luminous material.”

The crosswalks on Pali and on King Street without lights are simply death traps. Yet neither the city nor the state has solved the problem. Putting your body in front of cars and expecting them to stop is like playing Russian roulette.

Honolulu’s crosswalks simply disappear. Driving in the rain through Chinatown the other day, we noticed pedestrians waiting timidly on the sidewalk, not stepping out into the street to cross when they could have. Why? Perhaps it was because there was no visible crosswalk for them to use.

I went back today to photograph the intersection, on Nuuanu Avenue.

Nuuanu Ave in Chinatown

I’m standing on the sidewalk to take this picture. From the road, in moderate rain, with a wet windshield, the small scraps of paint over on the left and right were were totally invisible. Note that the crosswalk at the right is beginning to disappear.

Here’s another crosswalk in Chinatown, on my way back home:

Going, going

Here’s a lane on the Pali near town. Is that right lane turn-only, or is it turn-and-you-can-go-straight-too?  Can’t tell. The pavement marking is totally gone, and a bus blocks the sign that says you can also go straight. A driver could easily be confused. Pedestrian safety is not boosted by confusing drivers.


This crosswalk, from an earlier article, was gone already, and the pedestrian walk signal at the far side was at that time almost invisible:


This next pic is a Google Earth image of the bicycle path that runs down the middle of Metcalf Street starting at the University of Hawaii. It was taken by their satellite at a time when there was some paint on the street. There’s even a bike or motor scooter in the lane.

Metcalf Street Bike Path

But one day while I sat inside the late Volcano Joe’s at that corner, I noticed that there was no longer any paint on the bike path. The pic above shows brightly painted street markings, but much of the time the reality is different. Now, what is a bike path without any paint? It isn’t a bike path any longer. Indeed, bicyclists were proceeding down Metcalf in middle of the road. Well, somewhere near the middle of the road. Aside from the insanity of placing a bike path there in the first place is the compounded insanity of allowing the paint to disappear, or to fail to replace it after road work.

I don’t know if anyone was ever injured as a result of the missing bike path. If they were, it would have been good reason to fire someone at DOT on the spot. Same for anyone injured in a disappeared crosswalk. The missing paint problems go on year after year after year.

Google Earth will show you that there are plenty of places around the world where intersections are brightly painted. I’ve published several snaps of Tokyo intersections, as examples. Not only do they remain painted even through some really bad weather, but the reflecting crystals (additives to paint that reflect headlights back to the driver) really work, and the patterns painted on roadways actually assist drivers in staying in lane and stopping at the correct point while turning.


Aside from continual paint and road maintenance problems, Honolulu signage is often inadequate or ineffective.

No Turn on Red

Above is one of the two little “No turn on red” signs, as an example, at the intersection of Punahou and Nehoa. Despite the signs, drivers often make that right turn on red anyway. I’m confident that if I asked DOT about it they would point out that there are signs there. Waddayawant? Never mind that they are not effective. There could be larger signs, blinking lights, colors, or even one of those international signs with the red crossed-out circle.

Speaking of red crossed-out circle signs, I’ve seen many where the red has completely bleached out, not only making the sign ineffective, but making it look like the turn is permitted. Probably, inferior paint was used. Were the signs replaced? No. Never mind that the defective signage might cause what DOT calls an “incident.”

Bottom line on the Punahou and similar signage (Nehoa at Pensacola, another example) is that the signs don’t work. They’ve been there for years, have not worked for years, and nothing different will be done. If officials were held accountable for some kind of Pedestrian Safety Initiative (that is, if their jobs depended on it), we might have effective signs in Honolulu.

One of my pet peeves is either street name signs which are absent or street signs where the letters have bleached off making them unreadable. I have strained to figure out where I am on more than one occasion. I see other drivers ahead of me stopping in intersections sometimes trying to find or read illegible signs. No doubt there are a couple of “incidents” attributable to other drivers racing around them as they start moving again. Anything that competes for a driver’s attention is hazardous. We have no shortage of missing or hazardous signage in this town.

° Hawaii remains at the top of the list nationwide for pedestrian deaths in the older demographic

Hawaii ranks around fifth in the country in per-capita pedestrian deaths (depending on the year), and consistently has been at the top in the older demographic. Senior citizens are being picked off even in crosswalks. It’s not that officials don’t know about this. There is actually something called a “strategic plan” posted on a University of Hawaii website with the shameful statistics:

Hawaii had the fifth highest pedestrian fatality rate from traffic crashes in the United States over the 2001-2005 period, and by far the highest rate among senior-aged pedestrians (65 years and older). The 5-year rate for Hawaii senior-aged pedestrians (40.2 deaths/100,000 senior-aged residents) was nearly 3 times higher than that for the rest of the United States (14.1). A total of 150 pedestrians were killed in Hawaii over the 2001-2005 period, accounting for 22 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. In addition to the 30 pedestrians who are killed each year in the State, another 540 are involved in major traffic crashes. Senior pedestrians have the highest rates of fatal injuries, but the highest rates for non-fatal pedestrian crashes were computed for 5 to 19 year age range, with especially high rates among 10 to 14 year-olds.

Hawaii had the second highest average annual fatality rate for bicyclists (4.5 deaths/million residents) in the country from 2001-2005, nearly twice that for the rest of the States (2.4). There were 29 deaths from 2001-2005, representing 4 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. While there was no trend in the annual number of fatal injuries, the number of bicyclists involved in non-fatal crashes
generally increased, from 280 in 2001 to 329 in 2005.

[Hawaii Strategic Highway Safety Plan 2007 thru 2012]

This “plan” is like others for improving education or reducing the incidence of homelessness—it is unsupported with resources or any significant backing. It has cute pictures but is otherwise not terribly useful—a plan is no substitute for actual effort or achievement.

°  There is no enforcement of the traffic laws

Did you know that there was a “Cops in Crosswalks” program that came with federal money?

Cops in crosswalks

This article from August 2010 describes how New Jersey towns have put plainclothes police at intersections as part of a sting. The $200 fine or threat of a fine apparently did wonders to bring understanding and compliance with the new laws.

In Honolulu, on the other hand, I have seen, and no doubt you have also, drivers failing to stop before making right turns on red, cutting in front of pedestrians while yakking on their cell phones. No cop is ever in sight. At the intersection of Vineyard Blvd. and Nuuanu Avenue, flagged in an AARP survey as one of the most dangerous intersections, I have never seen police enforcing the traffic laws. Motorists know this. Frequently during rush hours, as the light turns yellow, they pile into and block the intersection, making it impossible for pedestrians in wheelchairs or scooters to cross safely at all. A friend was knocked off his scooter there. It was fortunately not one of those fatal “incidents.” (I wonder if it counts, then?).

There are cameras installed that show what’s going on. Why doesn’t HPD watch them and take action?

Pedestrians do think drivers should be ticketed. From the survey (click for larger):

Drivers should be ticketed

That’s 73-74% of pedestrians who think drivers should be ticketed. Almost everyone thinks drivers should stop. Put it together. Drivers are not being ticketed.

Bottom line on enforcement—except for issuing pedestrian tickets after an “incident,” HPD does not enforce traffic laws. Drivers know this. Red light running is common. There are neither cops nor cameras, hence no disincentive to just run through the light. Sometimes a driver will sail through even two seconds after the light has turned red.

This also goes on year after year after year. If HPD does not enforce traffic laws, they are not protecting pedestrians.

° It seems that pedestrian or bicyclist deaths or injuries are not a state or city priority

Here’s a snip of the hedges that used to line a section of the median on Ala Moana Blvd. across from Ala Moana Park—pre APEC.


There is quite a distance between crosswalks, so that pedestrians (tourists maybe, but also residents) are tempted to jaywalk. The continuous, if dead, hedges prevented that.

They were removed, so that Honolulu would not be embarrassed should APEC visitors see them.

To heck with keeping pedestrians safe.

Hedges (in fancy neighborhoods) or ugly chicken-wire fences (such as near Mayor Wright houses along Vineyard) are used to discourage jaywalking and the carnage that can result especially at night. But for no really worthwhile purpose, pedestrian safety was sacrificed by the Abercrombie administration so that we might look a bit more spiffy for our APEC visitors. (By the way, the grass is already dying at spots along that median. Remember: we don’t believe in maintenance here.)

Let’s throw the media into this as well. When the HPU student was killed, the story ran for a couple of days. There was the mandatory photo of the flowers placed at the spot, and the interviews with family and friends.

Dear newspaper and TV stations: There are “incidents” most any day. Where are you? Why do you not question DOT and HPD officials about the design of the intersections and the lack of enforcement? Why don’t you ask when was the last time HPD placed officers at that deadly crosswalk? Why do the media publicize the victim end of it and the flurry of jaywalking tickets that follows, but not follow the drivers who kill or maim? What happens to them? Does anyone ever sue the city or state for the poor conditions that contributed to the “incident?”

Do our news organizations also need a death before they report? It seems that way.

Last, let’s look at ourselves. In order to get improvement we will have to do more than say “too bad, very sad” when reading about the HPU student. She died in part because we have been sitting home expecting Santa to give us the gift of safer streets. It won’t happen. Safer streets will have to be fought for.

AARP could occupy the Department of Transportation, for example, or even the Governor’s office. Whatever works.

Hawaii’s high senior pedestrian death toll is earned, it does not happen by chance. It can be reversed. To a large extent we have become complacent and do not demand improvement.

I started this article with an example of a Maryland initiative that brought results. Other states and municipalities have also shown success. Why not Hawaii? Why not Honolulu?

Perhaps this can be reversed. Perhaps the Occupy movement could be an example. It’s about time we made some noise about this, or occupied someplace, or demanded that ineffective officials be replaced by those who can protect us 99% who like to walk, run, or bike in Honolulu and expect that the city and state will do what is required to keep us safe.

guillotine"Coupez-leur la tête" That would be from Alice in Wonderland in French (the book has some parallels with Hawaii, to be sure, but I was looking for what people might have shouted during the French Revolution). The French didn’t settle for just sending people home to spend more time with their families, but the main idea would be to put new people in place who can do the job. For Hawaii, it would be truly revolutionary.
“Off with their heads”

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As long as there's little thought paid to how streets and traffic lights are laid out, there will be accidents and fatalities. I'm thinking of the new system at ward center where Border's used to be. The light puts pedestrians and cars together in the street by having a green/walk for both at the same time. Even thoughg the cars are exiting at a low rate of speed, all it takes is a slip of the foot to have someone hurt or killed.

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