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County sees sharp decline in traffic deaths this year

Fatalities down 73% with fewer cars on road during the pandemic

DUI Task Force officer Caleb Guariello checks on a vehicle stopped at the second Hannah Brown Memorial Intoxication Checkpoint on Wednesday night on Kuihelani Highway. Police screened 192 vehicles and issued eight citations, including three for driving without a license, two each for no insurance and no licensed driver present and one for a child restraint violation. — The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

WAILUKU — Maui County has seen the sharpest decline statewide in traffic deaths so far this year, as fewer vehicles have been on the road during the pandemic.

Through Thursday, six people had died in crashes in the county this year, compared with 22 at the same time last year for a 73 percent decrease, according to police.

The rate of decline was the largest in the state, followed by decreases of 40 percent on Kauai and 39 percent in Hawaii County during the same period, according to state Department of Transportation statistics released Wednesday.

In Honolulu County, fatal traffic deaths rose by 2 percent to 47, compared with 46 at this time last year.

Statewide, 73 traffic deaths have been reported this year, marking a 27 percent decrease from the same period last year. “This is even with a reduction of roughly a third of vehicle trips daily,” according to a Department of Transportation news release.

As the Maui Police Department kicked off its holiday impaired driving enforcement campaign on Thanksgiving Eve, police traffic commander Lt. William Hankins thanked those who have worked with police to turn around the numbers for the county this year.

“This time last year we had a very serious problem,” Hankins said during a gathering Wednesday at the Wailuku Police Station before the second Hannah Brown Memorial Intoxication Checkpoint, held in honor of the 19-year-old Wailuku resident who was killed in a collision caused by a suspected drunken driver last year.

Hankins said 15, or 68 percent of fatal crashes at this time last year were caused by drivers who were impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“We had to come up with a different plan,” he said. “We needed to change the way people think. We needed to change the behavior.”

Along with continuing enforcement by DUI Task Force officers headed by Sgt. Nick Krau, police joined with community members, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Mayor Michael Victorino’s Vision Zero Maui and family members of Hannah Brown and others killed in traffic crashes to rally against impaired driving.

Since a county DUI towing law was implemented in January, 277 vehicles have been towed after drivers were arrested for DUI, Hankins said.

“We’ve taken that weapon out of their hand and they can’t get back in their car and hurt or kill someone,” he said. “It’s all of these little pieces we’ve put together that are making a difference.”

In social media posts, Hankins said he has seen attitudes toward drunken driving changing.

“So we’re changing people’s mindset, but we still struggle to change the behavior,” he said.

So far this year, half of the six traffic deaths have been alcohol- or drug-related, he said.

Hannah Brown’s mother, Charlene, said she has seen more support for police checkpoints on social media posts, although a few people comment that the roadblocks are inconvenient.

She said people wouldn’t think that if it was their family members were hurt or killed by a drunken driver who could have been stopped at a checkpoint.

“These police officers don’t want to be out there doing this as much as anybody else,” she said. “They’re leaving their families to save other families.”

As of Wednesday, police had made 427 impaired driving arrests, compared with 450 arrests at the same time last year. The numbers were about the same despite the reduction in tourists and traffic during the pandemic, Hankins said.

Sgt. Krau said that “searching for dangerous and unpredictable impaired drivers on our roads night after night is challenging, but one of the most important and rewarding fields of police work.”

“The members of the DUI Task Force know that holidays are times when we are needed most,” he said. “Knowing our sacrifices are making a difference and that we are saving lives pushes us to always give 110 percent.

“All impaired driving fatalities are preventable, and the loss of even one precious life is one too many.”

Hankins gave special thanks to the Brown family for joining in the checkpoints in Hannah Brown’s name, as well as participating in public service announcements and campaigns against impaired driving.

Support from the Browns and their following has helped reduce the numbers of traffic deaths, Hankins said.

“What this family has done for this county words can’t describe — how much they have lost, yet how much they have given,” he said. “The fact that they keep giving and giving and giving and trying to push the message is incredible.”

Everett Brown said that despite anxious feelings around this time of year, family members want to continue to spread the message against drinking and driving for Hannah.

“She always wanted to help people,” Charlene Brown said. “I guess this is her way of helping people now.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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