Spurred by four traffic fatalities in a little over a week, the Maui Police Department is "urging motorists to slow down, buckle up, put their phones away and drive smart" - while also issuing tickets to distracted drivers.
"We haven't seen something like this for a while," said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section, about the cluster of fatalities. "This month has been very taxing for us (because), we've been focusing on distracted driving on our time and overtime, but all the call-outs that we've been getting have been during our off times."
The four recent traffic deaths increased the total to seven this year, compared to four at the same time last year. Three of the fatalities involved motorcycles, two were passengers in vehicles and the others were a pedestrian and a bicyclist.
The run of incidents began April 4, when a 63-year-old Kahului man lost control of his Harley-Davidson motor-cycle and ran into a guard-rail on Piilani Highway in Kihei. Clifford Spencer was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, where he later died from his injuries. Spencer had not been wearing a helmet.
On April 6, a 23-year-old Kula man died after falling out of the bed of a moving pickup truck. Jared Robello was a passenger in the truck and climbed out of the cab through the rear sliding window and into the bed of the truck while it was moving. Robello fell out of the truck bed. He was pronounced dead the following day at MMMC.
On Wednesday, a 24-year-old Wailuku man died after crashing his motorcycle into a guardrail along North Kihei Road, near the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge. Burton Salas, who was wearing a helmet, sustained fatal injuries and died at the scene. A preliminary investigation revealed that speed was a factor in the crash.
On Saturday, a 61-year-old Kihei man was riding his bicycle when he was struck by a pickup truck that drifted into the bike lane on Piilani Highway. Karl Hagen was riding toward Maalaea on the highway shoulder north of Kanani Road, when a 28-year-old Kula man hit him from behind with his truck. Hagen was taken to MMMC, where he later died. He was wearing a helmet.
Of the seven fatalities this year, speed is believed to be a factor in at least three, Uedoi said. He said that toxicology results still are pending to determine if alcohol and drugs contributed to the crashes.
The department's Traffic Section also is investigating two near-fatal crashes this year, though drugs and alcohol have been ruled out in both.
Among the earlier deaths this year, Uedoi said one involved a passenger only using the shoulder belt and not the lap belt. The car had a retractable seat belt assembly that automatically strapped the chest area over the shoulder, but the passenger did not manually put on the lap belt, Uedoi said.
"We're just trying to get the message out that people need to think twice before they make a decision that may affect their lives and other people's lives," he said. "We've had periods where we're inundated with fatalities and crashes, but we've been fortunate over the past couple years to not have too many.
"We hope to keep it at seven for the rest of the year."
Police recorded 16 traffic fatalities last year, 23 in 2012 and 20 in 2011.
In the midst of the spate of traffic fatalities, Maui police have continued their "aggressive enforcement" and have issued 215 citations in April as part of national Distracted Driving Awareness month, Uedoi said. So far this year, police have arrested 234 people for driving under the influence and issued 790 speeding, 414 cellphone and 827 seat-belt citations.
About electronic devices, Uedoi reminded drivers that "just holding" a cellphone is an offense.
"That includes sitting at the red light because a lot of people in their responses say that 'I'm at the red light and I'm stopped,' '' he said. "But when the light turns green you're still stopped.
"Everybody just has to pay attention and drive responsibly; drive with aloha."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.