By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Big Island police say they support two new statewide traffic safety laws.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Monday signed the two measures into law. One establishes a statewide ban on the use of cellular phones and other mobile devices while driving, and another requires that the driver and all passengers in a vehicle be restrained by a seat belt assembly or child passenger restraint while on public roads.
Hawaii County already has laws mandating the use of seat belts and restricting the use of electronic devices, but the state’s versions are a little stricter.
Sgt. Christopher Gali, who heads the Hawaii County Police Department’s Traffic Enforcement Unit, said he supports both state laws, and he applauded the tighter seat belt law.
“I’m all for it,” he said Tuesday. “It’s going to prevent some passengers from being ejected from the vehicle. It will save lives. I’ve seen a lot of rollovers, and most of the time, if passengers are not restrained, they’re ejected from the vehicle and that’s when they get killed. If they were restrained in the vehicle, they probably would be hurt, but not as seriously, and they probably wouldn’t end up dead.”
Gali said the driver is now “solely responsible” for making certain that all passengers are properly buckled in and restrained and will be subject to a fine. Drivers who are cited under the seat belt law are subject to a fine and fees totaling $92.
Officers on the Big Island issued 3,741 citations in 2012 for violations of the county’s seat belt law. In 2013, they issued 1,228 seat belt citations as of Monday.
“If you look at our statewide seat belt usage statistics, we’re usually somewhere in the high 90s (percentage), one of the highest usage rates in the nation,” County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said Tuesday. “However, when you look at fatalities, and I take this from the FARS, the Fatal Accident Reporting System, which all police report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the numbers of passengers that are killed not wearing a seat belt in the state of Hawaii is somewhere around 60 percent.
“… We lose far too many people on our highways.”
According to federal statistics, seat belt use increases the safety of all motor vehicle occupants by as much as 45 percent, and is the single most effective step drivers and passengers can take to protect themselves in the event of a traffic crash.
“The data regarding seat belt use is irrefutable,” said state Sen. Clayton Hee, an Oahu Democrat, who introduced the bill earlier this year. “Seventy-five percent of back-seat passengers suffer serious injury of death when they are not properly buckled up. People’s lives will be saved by this new law and, at the end of the day, that is really what counts.”
Added Sen. J. Kalani English, a Maui Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and International Affairs: “The enactment of this measure reinforces what many of us already know, that the importance of seat belt use can’t be ignored. By taking a few moments to buckle up, we can each play a vital role in preventing an unnecessary tragedy.”
The statewide ban on cell phones and other hand-held mobile devices by drivers follows the lead of the counties, including Hawaii County, which has had a countywide ban in effect since Jan. 1, 2010.
“We’ll be following the state law,” said Roth, citing the doctrine of preemption in which state law trumps county ordinances.
The National “Click It or Ticket” campaign started Monday and runs through June 2. During this period, police will increase islandwide enforcement of seat belt and child restraint laws.
Big Island police issued 2,617 mobile device citations in 2012, and as of Monday had written 987 tickets this year under the county’s cell phone ban.
Distracted driving has become an issue nationwide, especially with younger drivers sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel.
“Studies show that mobile phone use while driving can have lethal effects,” said English. “By providing consistent statewide requirements for the use of mobile electronic devices while driving, we are telling drivers that using a mobile device while driving is dangerous and unacceptable. I encourage Hawaii drivers to drive responsibly; the safety of everyone who uses our roads depends on it.”
The fine for a violation of the county’s mobile device ban is $97. The new statewide ban provides for fines of $100 to $200 for a first offense, with fines of up to $500 for subsequent offenses.
“I know that one of the reasons we had to go to a statewide ban as opposed to just a county ban — all counties had it — is that part of our federal Department of Transportation funding is tied to that,” Roth said. “We were not getting all of our funds. We were being penalized because we didn’t have a state law versus county laws.”
Gali said he can’t recall any Big Island fatalities that have been linked to mobile device use.
“Of course, we always look at that,” he said. “We do an administrative subpoena of cell phone records, just to make sure. That is a part of our investigation, to check to see if a cell phone is involved.”
The state mobile device ban, like the Hawaii County ordinance, exempts emergency responders using a mobile device while on duty, as well as drivers using two-way radio for work-related duties who are operating fleet vehicles or possess a commercial vehicle license, and drivers holding a valid amateur radio operating license.
Email John Burnett at hawaiitribune-herald.com.