Published in Honolulu Weekly May 9, 2001
Dead in the Crosswalk
by John Pritchett
Anna Hara, a 90-year-old grandmother was run over and killed in a crosswalk on the Pali Highway in Nuuanu, June 13, 1999. The 22-year-old driver responsible for Anna's death had run over and killed 85-year-old Philip Kong, also in a crosswalk, just five years earlier, less than a half-mile from the same spot.
December 14, 1998, 10-year-old Jerry Kekahuna was struck and killed, in a Farrington Highway crosswalk, in Waianae by a hit-and-run driver speeding through a red light.
Highly publicized cases like these have been driving a growing public outcry for better pedestrian safety measures. On average, 27 pedestrians are killed each year on Hawaii's streets with around 71 percent of those deaths occurring on Oahu.
This year (2001) the Hawaii State Legislature addressed the pedestrian safety issue with two bills. On the house side, State Representatives Joe Souki and Marilyn Lee introduced a bill (HB414) described as a "pedestrians' bill of rights." This bill died early in the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.
State Senator Kal Kawamoto (Dist. 19 Waipahu) introduced SB1575 that "Amends the Traffic Code to Increase Pedestrian Safety." This bill made it through the senate, crossed over to the house, and on March 19, was passed by the House Transportation Committee, unanimously. Referred to the House JHA Committee, the bill never got a hearing and died. The bill pointed out that in Hawaii "From 1986 through 1999 there were a total of three hundred forty-five pedestrian fatalities and nine thousand, four hundred sixty-four pedestrian injuries." It then went on to say: "The legislature finds that the number of pedestrian fatalities and injuries is unacceptable and that additional laws governing both pedestrians and drivers are needed to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities occurring on our streets."
Indeed it is unacceptable and it has been unacceptable for a long time. Interestingly, statistical data provided by the state Department of Transportation show no upward trend in the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities over the last fourteen years, so this is really nothing new. What is new is the level of public outcry. Citizens are being run over and killed in the crosswalk because Hawaii's drivers are failing to yield the right of way to pedestrians.
SB1575 intended to add teeth to the pedestrian safety laws by adding a new "Penalties" section that would have increased fines considerably. Currently a jaywalking ticket will cost you $55.00, and drivers cited for failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk get a $77.00 fine. The amended law would have increased both those fines to $250.00 for a first offense, $500.00 for a second offense and $750.00 for a third or subsequent offense. Notice that the fine increase is 40 percent higher for pedestrians.
The senate bill included some silly changes to the existing law, for instance, "a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a crosswalk or intersection shall: Point either hand at a forty-five degree angle towards the ground at the point of crossing." In its wisdom, The House Transportation Committee, amended this to read: "Extend either arm straight up toward the sky." In either case, had the bill become law, as a pedestrian trying to cross the street, you could have been fined $250.00 for failing to point, somewhere. It's true that hefty fine increases could provide a deterrent and increase pedestrian safety. But, to be effective, the laws must be evenly and fairly enforced for both pedestrians and drivers. This brings us to the subject of law enforcement.
The level of law enforcement of specific laws should be reflected in the number of citations issued for violations of those laws, over time. Statistical data provided by the state Judiciary reveal that drivers get far fewer citations than pedestrians for violations of Part VII of the Traffic Code. For example, in 1997 there were 1,251 citations issued to pedestrians and 130 citations issued to motorists for violations of pedestrian safety laws statewide, a disparity of 962 percent. Clearly, law enforcement is aimed at pedestrians, not drivers, so the burden of any "new laws" passed by the legislature, especially large fine increases, would be disproportionately and unfairly placed on pedestrians.
In a Honolulu Advertiser newspaper article, October 6, 1998, "Police to enforce pedestrian rights," Police Capt. Mike Hama of the traffic division was reported to have said that the Honolulu police were about to launch a campaign to warn or ticket drivers who ignore pedestrians' rights. This sounds good, but statistical data for the following year (1999) actually show a 15 percent decrease in the number of tickets issued to drivers for violations of pedestrians' rights over the previous year.
The real problem here is not with the existing laws, the problem is with the lack of enforcement of those laws. With little enforcement, over a long period of time, disregard of pedestrians' rights by Hawaii's drivers has become acceptable and the norm.
Besides laws and law enforcement, there are other ways to enhance pedestrian safety, such as media campaigns designed to educate and change the attitudes of drivers and pedestrians, improved traffic signals, and construction of more pedestrian walkways and overpasses. Sadly, while pedestrians accounted for 20 percent of all motor vehicle-related deaths in Hawaii from 1986-1995, only 0.8 percent of federal highway safety funds were spent on pedestrian safety during that period. The remaining 99.2 percent of the federal safety funds were spent on automotive safety "improvements" such as road widening and other efforts to remove the obstacles to more rapid traffic flow. (Source: Environmental Working Group, Surface Transportation Policy Project).
While the legislature's intent in proposing these bills was worthy, the problem isn't with the law it's with law enforcement. This is the job of our mayors and police, not the state legislature. Having said that, there is a new law that needs to be added to Part VII of the Traffic Code.Presently, there is no law prohibiting a driver from blocking a crosswalk. When a driver approaches a stoplight, goes beyond the stop line to block the crosswalk, pedestrians must either walk behind the car or worse, walk in front of the car into the lane of moving traffic. This is very dangerous and there should be a law against it. Perhaps this would be something for the legislature to consider for the next session. Additionally, the legislature could consider a resolution requesting better enforcement by the counties and police.