Saturday, July 23, 2011

Slow Accident Protocol Prolongs Highway Woes

Hawaii residents take note of and publicize their state's uniqueness. The islands are the most remote inhabited location on earth. Maui has the world’s largest dormant volcano, Haleakala. Kauai boasts both the world’s highest rainfall on Mount Waialeale and the Pacific’s largest canyon, Waimea. Kilauea on the Big Island has been active since 1983, the world’s longest continuing eruption.

Honolulu on Oahu is the nation’s largest city – technically encompassing not only the entire island but also all the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago stretching to the northwest. Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Band, the nation’s oldest municipal group, often plays on the grounds of Iolani Palace, the only former royal residence and palace in the USA.

All of those distinctions are more novelty than impact, but others are not so benign. Honolulu motorists suffer through some of the worst traffic in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute and the comparisons many well-traveled residents make.

Something else motorists here experience are some of the longest highway and freeway closures after accidents. Civil Beat headlined yesterday that “Honolulu shuts freeways longer than other cities” based on its reporting.

Standard Protocol

Mainland transplants often complain about driving habits that seem ingrained here among many motorists, such as cruising in a freeway’s “fast” lane slower than the prevailing traffic flow, and not signaling an intention to turn left while waiting at an intersection until the traffic light turns green. Shutting down freeways for long periods after accidents and incidents is another one.

Civil Beat looked into the practice after several noteworthy highway and freeway closures by Honolulu police officers and found that officials in California, Texas and Arizona say freeway closure is their last resort. “And if they do shut down a freeway,” CB wrote, “it’s rarely more than one or two hours.”

This photo shows the closure of the H-1 after the horrific and notorious incident in January 2008 when a deranged man threw a toddler from a pedestrian overpass onto the H-1 freeway near downtown Honolulu. The freeway was closed to westbound traffic for nearly five hours.

In April of this year, a crime spree in East Honolulu involving a carjacking and fatal shooting closed Kalanianaole Highway for three hours. The investigation was in the westbound lanes heading into Honolulu, but even eastbound traffic going to Hawaii Kai and other bedroom communities along the highway was halted during the afternoon rush hour.

Honolulu’s future rail project would not offer relief during all such freeway closures, but two points deserve mention. The system will indeed be a congestion-avoiding alternative to freeway driving at all times. And the relatively long closures during investigations of accidents on Oahu’s major east-west thoroughfares seems to be standard protocol – another of those ingrained habits motorists have come to expect.

There’s no indication whether that protocol will soon change. Civil Beat ended its piece: “Questions to Honolulu police about the department's highway incident protocol or whether it has undertaken any measures to address the issue went unanswered."

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