Stop blaming pedestrians so much for the crashes that claim their lives. Instead, focus more on drivers and road design.

That’s the message panelists consistently returned to Tuesday during a discussion hosted by Civil Beat focused on challenges and solutions for making Oahu’s streets more pedestrian-friendly.

Pedestrian fatalities increased across the state from 15 in 2017 to 44 in 2018, a 193% increase, according to state Department of Transportation.

Of 2018’s deaths, 27 took place on Oahu.

Civil Beat organized the panel as part of its Civil Cafe series, in which Civil Beat reporters and experts explore some of the more pressing issues facing Hawaii. The talk, held at Impact Hub Honolulu, was hosted by transportation reporter Marcel Honore and expanded on Honore’s Wayfinding series, which explores mobility issues Oahu residents face every day.

The panel featured Renee Espiau, the City and County of Honolulu’s Complete Streets coordinator; Kathleen Rooney, transportation systems manager for Hawaii-based sustainability nonprofit Ulupono Initiative; Daniel Alexander, co-director of the Hawaii Bicycling League and Anthony Chang, urban planning student at the University of Hawaii and advocate for safer streets.

Blaming Pedestrians

Rooney said that pedestrians too often shoulder the blame after crashes where driver behavior and road design actually bear much of the responsibility.

“We refuse to ascribe that responsibility to the driver whatsoever,” Rooney said. “And on top of that, it automatically means that the pedestrian, who is not entrenched in multi-tons of metal, is somehow responsible.”

“Someone’s driving a multi-ton vehicle that can kill, and someone’s just walking. It seems slightly out of (proportion).”—Kathleen Rooney, Ulupono Initiative

Chang, meanwhile, shared with the audience the pain of losing his sister, who was struck and killed by a car about six years ago, and his frustration at nearly losing his grandmother, who was struck in a separate crash four years before that.

Similar to Rooney, Chang said the focus on these crashes has shifted away from drivers and onto pedestrian behaviors such as jaywalking — but the data shows that drivers are most often at fault.

That data shows that Oahu’s city buses have a much better safety record than private vehicles when it comes to crashes with pedestrians, he added.

“If pedestrians are being always careless, (what about) buses and trains?” Chang said. “Those modes of motorized transportation have lower collision rates, fatality rates.”

Redesigning Our Streets

Espiau said that in order to avoid blaming pedestrians, both walkers and drivers need to be taught not to blindly trust Oahu’s streets.

Many of Oahu’s streets are actually over-engineered, Espiau said. That’s a phenomenon in which roadways contain too many safety features that may cause pedestrians and drivers to move less carefully under the illusion that traffic lights and crosswalks guarantee everyone’s safety.

Making things worse, Espiau said, was that engineers in previous decades designed Honolulu’s streets like freeways. They emphasized speed and efficiency, resulting in features such as the crosswalks on King Street that allow pedestrians to cross large, multi-lane streets in the middle of the block instead of having to walk to the intersection where traffic lights make crossing is safer.

In these situations, removing non-essential features and regulations such as striping and signage may actually make these streets safer for pedestrians, Espiau said.

“The theory there is if you make it feel more dangerous, then people will approach it slower.”

Alexander said that the city needs to continue redesigning streets to ensure safety for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike.

One example of this is the King Street bicycle lane, Alexander said. Previously, nearly 70% of all bicyclists traveling down that street used the sidewalk instead of the road, as the street was just too dangerous. After the bike lane was installed, he said, the proportion fell to just 3% of bicyclists riding on the sidewalk — and this has led to an overall increase in safety there.

Alexander said that a proposal in the state legislature to install so-called red-light cameras at intersections to automatically record traffic violations may be a promising new tool for the city. Those cameras could take some of the strain off police enforcement plus cut down on potentially dangerous chases, the panelists generally agreed.

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