By CHELSEA JENSEN
Thirty-eight people perished on public Big Island roads in an array of tragic, freak and drunken or drugged driving crashes in 2012 — the deadliest year on record since 2004.
The year’s first fatality was Feb. 9, when a utility truck on Kaiminani Drive snagged an over-the-road cable and struck a pickup truck, killing the driver instantly. The last was a Dec. 20 suspected drunken driving crash that killed a 45-year-old Kailua-Kona man in Ookala. In all, public Big Island road deaths were up 73 percent from the 22 killed in 2011.
The victims were residents and visitors alike, from 6 months to 92 years old. The majority of the crashes, 24, occurred in West Hawaii, from Pahala to Honokaa.
The Hawaii Police Department has attributed 28 — nearly three-fourths of the deaths — thus far to crashes involving alcohol, drugs or a combination of both.
A Stephens Media analysis of initial police statements further found speeding was a suspected contributing factor in at least 14 of the crashes.
“It’s not just locally a problem, it’s a national problem, as well,” said Hawaii Police Department Traffic Services Section Sgt. Robert Pauole. “Everybody is seeing the increase in impairment based on medication, drugs and alcohol — look at just our alcohol and drug fatalities.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2007 National Roadside Survey, more than 16 percent of weekend and nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter medications. More than 11 percent tested positive for illicit drugs.
Another NHTSA study found that in 2009, among fatally injured drivers, 18 percent tested positive for at least one drug — an increase from 13 percent in 2005.
In 2011, 9,878 people were killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes in the U.S. These fatalities accounted for 31 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S., according to the administration. The number of deaths is down 2.5 percent from 2010.
Pauole also noted a spike in motorcycle fatalities in 2012. According to reports, there were 10 fatal motorcycle crashes on Hawaii Island last year — nine of which counted toward the department’s official tally, which does not include deaths on private roads, deaths caused by medical conditions and deaths that occurred more than 30 days following a crash.
“In 85 percent of those fatalities the driver didn’t have a valid license to operate a motorcycle and wore no helmet,” he said.
While many of those killed didn’t have a license in the first place, Pauole said graduated licensing of motorcyclists is an issue the department’s has been trying to address for several years to reduce the number of fatalities involving motorcyclists. The concern, he said, is that a motorcyclist can obtain a license while owning a smaller 250-cc bike yet subsequently obtain a larger motorcycle without requiring a different class of license.
“It’s like driving a moving truck compared with driving a rig,” he said. “You need a different endorsement, and we have been trying to change these things.”
Nationwide, 4,502 motorcyclists were killed — a slight increase from the 4,469 motorcyclists killed in 2009, according to the NHTSA.
In an effort to slow the number of deaths in the final months of 2012, Pauole said, the department increased impaired driving checkpoints and patrols. Not all of the data has been tallied for those months, however, Pauole said between Dec. 14 and Jan. 1, a period of a national campaign, 77 suspected impaired driving arrests were made.
In all of 2012, officers made 1,477 arrests for suspected driving under the influence — up slightly from 1,435 in 2011, according to the department. Hilo notched the most arrests at 588, followed by Kona with 572 and Puna with 169.
During the same period, there were 1,455 major crashes, up from 1,409 in 2011, according to the department.
“As the fatalities increased, the administration put the pressure on,” he said about the department surpassing the total. “The department’s response to reducing fatalities is to increase DUI checkpoints, roving patrols and task forces.”
Just five years since 1980 have seen as many — or more — people killed on Hawaii Island’s roads, according to Hawaii County Databooks. Since 1980, 1,073 lives have been lost on the island’s roads.
The deadliest year on record, according to the databooks, was 1991 when 48 died on isle roads, followed by 1990 with 47 fatalities; 1998 with 44 fatalities; and 1988 and 2000 with 38 deaths each year.
Pauole said that the years with higher numbers of fatalities often correlate to crashes with multiple fatalities.
However, there are means the average person can take to protect themselves and others, he said.
“Don’t drink and drive, (do) wear your seat belt and (do) obey the speed limit,” said Pauole. “That’s the three killers (drinking and driving, not wearing a seat belt and speeding) — if you want to save somebody’s life do that.”
He said that, according to the NHTSA, seat belts, when used correctly in a vehicle, reduce chances of fatal injury to front seat passengers by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. For light pickup truck occupants, a seat belt can reduce the chance of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate to critical injury by 65 percent.
“It increases your chances of surviving,” he said.
Email Chelsea Jensen at email@example.com.