When Traffic Safety Gets Really Personal

At 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, my family and I were sitting down for dinner when suddenly we heard screeching tires followed by a tremendously loud impact. We and most of our neighbors rushed outside to see what had happened, several people calling 911 and offering assistance.

I saw that a white Toyota Sienna van had lost control, careened onto the sidewalk and come to a stop in the sunken gully of my neighbor’s front yard across the street from our house. Then I laid my eyes on what was left of my own car.

My beloved manual drive Mazda 3 sport had been parked in front of our home near the top of St. Louis Heights as usual. The white Toyota Sienna had hit it with such force that it was dragged more than 20 feet, and both cars decapitated our mailboxes and damaged the garage door. The head on collision completely crushed the front bumper and engine compartment of my Mazda 3, bent both front wheels, shattered windows, and probably broke the axles and twisted the frame, among other damages.

When the Toyota Sienna hit my car, its airbags deployed and the driver lost further control, skidding across the street, over the sidewalk and into my neighbor’s front yard. The car came to rest just 2-3 feet from my neighbor’s kitchen.

The author’s Mazda.

Paul Arinaga

According to the police report, the Toyota was driven by a 17-year old male and had six passengers, ranging in age from 14-16 years. It is unclear whether drugs or alcohol were involved as the police did not test for them. One does get the impression that a lot of young people hang out at Waahila State Park, a few streets past our house, and that some of them may be doing drugs.

Miraculously, no one was hurt. Thankfully, we were not in our car at the time of the accident. A neighbor came up to me and offered to be a witness. She had seen the entire incident unfold and had heard the car coming.

She said that she had been walking her dog just across the street from where my car was parked. Had the driver of the Toyota Sienna swerved in the opposite direction, I’m almost certain that my neighbor would have lost her life. Another neighbor from several houses up the street said that he had heard the car’s tires screeching for several seconds and knew instantly that it was going to hit something. The teenager driving the Toyota was simply driving much too fast.

Road Safety

Aside from having to spend hours and hours on the phone with my insurance company, get my mail put on hold and shop for a new car, this experience hasn’t been so bad. It could have been far worse for me and everyone else involved.

It has made me realize once again, however, that Honolulu is absolutely backwards when it comes to road safety. Pedestrian fatalities spiked in 2018. They were several orders of magnitude higher than in 2017. This perhaps tracks a nationwide trend. In the past decade, the number of people struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent, according to the “Dangerous by Design 2019” report. Moreover, according to a 2015 NHTSA report, SUVs and pickup trucks are two to three times more likely than smaller personal vehicles like sedans to kill people walking in the event of a crash. There are a lot of SUVs and pickups in Hawaii.

Ironically, the incident in front of our house occurred just one day after Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled his package of pedestrian safety measures. The “Look All Ways” initiative sounds like a good start and hopefully the O‘ahu Pedestrian Plan that the City and County is currently developing will make our streets safer for everyone.

“Hawaii Drivers”

We have a long way to go, however. Having lived in Europe for two decades and driven in several European countries, including on the high-speed Autobahn, I know that the level of driving skill there is much higher than it is here in Hawaii (albeit the level of road aggression there is also probably higher). People here, both kamaaina and malihini alike, often roll their eyes and say “Ah, Hawaii drivers.”

It seems that it is far too easy to get a driver’s license here. Moreover, the prevalence in the U.S. of automatic transmissions (almost all cars in Europe are manual drive) means that any dunce with a little skill can drive a car. Perhaps we need to improve driver education and make testing more stringent.

Substandard Road Design

Compounding poor driving skills is poor road design. In Europe, many roads have been re-designed, particularly in residential neighborhoods, to force drivers to slow down and to make it safer for pedestrians to cross streets. People driving too fast is a known problem with many known solutions (see examples). Some examples are intentionally narrowing streets, using obstacles such as solid planter boxes, various types of pedestrian islands and barriers to protect the pedestrians, speed bumps, painted “shark teeth” on the road, etc. Unfortunately, few of these solutions have been implemented here in Honolulu.

It often seems that the best we can hope for is that crosswalks will be kept painted so that they remain visible, particularly at night. Crossing a major thoroughfare such as King Street or Waialae Avenue in a crosswalk without a stoplight is a tricky, heart-stopping maneuver. The flimsy plastic posts (pedestrian safety delineators) installed along crosswalks on Nuuanu Avenue/Pali Highway after 83-year-old Raymond Endow was hit in a crosswalk and later died are a band-aid solution that has probably not led people to drive more slowly or carefully.

No Cure For Stupidity

A few days after the incident, we were up on Tantalus getting out of our car for a hike. Suddenly several cars came screeching into the parking lot. A young kid jumped out of a beat-up Toyota sedan hopping around like a bug. He loudly bragged how he had beaten a BMW on the drive up the hill and how “drifting” (a style of skidding through turns) had possibly ruined his tires. This type of attitude resulted in the nearly fatal accident last year which ended triathlete Lectie Altman’s promising career in sports and has undoubtedly caused her much anguish.

After what I had seen the previous week, I honestly felt like beating this kid with a stick. My wife and I rolled our eyes in disgust. There is, unfortunately, no cure for pathetic machismo or youthful irresponsibility, although a little education might help.

In any case, we should address what we can. Honolulu urgently needs to vastly improve its street design to make streets safer for everyone: pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. For a fraction of the money being spent on rail, we could make the city much more walkable and livable. Just get it done!

The post When Traffic Safety Gets Really Personal appeared first on Honolulu Civil Beat.

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