2017 a deadly year on Big Island roads

  • SGT. ROBERT PAUOLE

Speed kills.

Obvious as it sounds, that’s the lesson to be learned from the majority of the 32 official traffic fatalities that occurred on Hawaii Island in 2017 — the same official total of traffic deaths that took place in 2016. The deaths occurred in 30 collisions.

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“I will point out our speed-related fatalities went up drastically,” Sgt. Robert Pauole of the Hawaii Police Department’s Traffic Services Division said Wednesday. “Our speeding-related fatalities for 2017 are 18, compared to seven in 2016.”

Speed-related crashes include the deadliest of the year, a two-car collision that took three lives. It happened May 17 on Queen Kaahumanu Highway (Route 19) about a mile north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport.

Police say a northbound 1998 Toyota 4Runner passed several vehicles. After passing the final car, the driver lost control, veered back into the oncoming southbound lane and broadsided a 2008 Nissan Titan pickup truck.

Both occupants of the 4Runner, Hector Alfredo Barrientos Vigil and Obdulio Eliseo Garcia Orellana, 33-year-old Captain Cook men originally from Guatemala, were killed. So was the Titan’s driver, 37-year-old Hailame Lavaka of Waimea.

Lavaka’s 32-year-old wife, Alana, was critically injured.

May was a particularly deadly month on Big Island roads, with 10 unofficial and nine official traffic fatalities.

“A number of our fatalities this year were because of people driving recklessly, passing when there’s double-solid lines, around bends and (causing) head-on collisions,” Pauole said. “I know there was the one on Saddle Road where the individual was passing on the curve, and as he came around that bend, he went head-on with a vehicle. He was passing in a double-solid line area. I believe there were also two fatalities in the Hamakua District where it was the same, passing where there’s a double-solid line and a head-on collision.”

The Oct. 14 crash on Saddle Road, also known as Daniel K. Inouye Highway, killed 49-year-old Napoleon Higuera of Hilo, who was driving west in a 2001 Dodge Caravan and overtaking vehicles when he collided with an eastbound 2015 Honda Fit.

The Honda’s driver, a 36-year-old Mountain View woman, was hospitalized in critical condition but survived. Higuera wasn’t wearing a seat belt; the Mountain View woman was.

The two Hamakua crashes Pauole referred to were on June 7 and Dec. 2, and both occurred on Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 11) in Paauilo.

In the first, 32-year-old Jacob De Jesus of Paauilo was killed when his Hilo-bound sedan crossed the centerline and collided head-on with a dump truck near the 37-mile marker. His car was pushed backward into a Jeep Wrangler. The drivers of those vehicles suffered minor injuries and refused medical treatment.

A 37-year-old Papaaloa woman, Lori Ann Sato, was killed in the second collision when, driving north, she overtook a vehicle in a no-passing zone near the 34-mile marker in her 2004 Honda sedan and was broadsided by a southbound 1999 Toyota pickup.

A passenger in the pickup, a 21-year-old Pepeekeo man, was treated and released at North Hawaii Community Hospital for his injuries. The driver, a 20-year-old Pepeekeo man, wasn’t injured. Sato wasn’t wearing a seat belt; both pickup truck occupants were.

Although the official total is 32, 36 lives were actually claimed by vehicles last year on Hawaii Island, two more than in 2016. Two of those deaths occurred on a private road or private property, and two within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In one of those HVNP crashes, 48-year-old John Ashley Becker of Texas was killed and another man injured May 28 when the driver of a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck they were passengers in rolled over on Volcano Highway (Highway 11) near the 33-mile marker.

The driver, 43-year-old Kenneth Ewing of Pahoa, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.312, almost four times the legal DUI threshold of 0.08.

Ewing pleaded guilty Oct. 31 to involuntary manslaughter and second-degree negligent injury. He’s scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 26 before U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright in Honolulu.

Police made 1,160 DUI arrests in 2017, compared to 1,111 in 2016, an increase of 4.4 percent.

By district, Kona led the way in DUI arrests, by far, with 521. Puna was next, with 276, followed by South Hilo with 254, South Kohala with 69, Ka‘u with 20, Hamakua with nine, North Kohala with six and North Hilo with five.

There were 1,362 major accidents — those that caused $3,000 or more in damage — in 2017, compared to 1,443 during the same period last year, a decrease of 5.6 percent.

The worst year for fatalities in recent memory was 2012, when police tallied 38 official traffic deaths. The numbers had steadily declined until 2016, leaving Pauole and other traffic enforcers “perplexed.”

“It might be understandable going up by a few or even down by a few, but when you jump from a low number — 2015 was 19, 2014 was 11, now, all of a sudden, we’re jumping up into the 30s,” Pauole said. “Those are big numbers and the department is definitely concerned.

“As far as a solution, I don’t have any. From a police standpoint, we’re doing exactly the same thing we’ve been doing all these years. Our speeding enforcement, our DUI enforcement, are all consistently the same, if not more than previous years. I think, at this point, people just need to take it upon themselves to drive safer, take it upon themselves to drive with aloha.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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2017 traffic fatality list from Hawaii Police Department. Dates are dates of death. Dates of collision might be earlier.

1. Michael Simmons, 37, of O’Brien, Ore., Jan. 5, Highway 130 near Leilani Avenue, Pahoa.

2. Mona Yoshitaro, 34, of Ocean View, Jan. 6, Highway 11 near 96-mile marker, Kona.

3. Richard Topenio, 42, of Kailua-Kona, Jan. 21, Highway 19 near 98-mile marker, Kona.

4. Paul Hernandez, 65, of Sparta, N.J., Jan. 21, Highway 11, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.**

5. Chantel Kaaumoana, 42, of Hilo, Feb. 1, Haku Nui Road, Captain Cook.*

6. Robert Abeyta, 59, of Kailua-Kona, Feb. 2, Highway 190, Kaupulehu.

7. Kawenalanionapua Low-Hopeau, 3, of Hilo, March 7, parking lot of Val Hala Apartments, Hilo.*

8. Aurelie Vincent, 35, of Vienne, France, March 13, Mauna Kea Access Road.

9. Thelma J. McLamore, 88, of San Antonio, March 15, Kanoelehua Avenue near Kekuanaoa Street, Hilo.

10. Makaylyn Kalani, 20, of Paauilo, March 27, Highway 270 near 13-mile marker, North Kohala.

11. Chase K. Hook-Banuvong, 14, of Pahoa, April 16, South Puni Makai Loop near Ono Street, Hawaiian Beaches.

12. Robbie Weeks, 48, of Hilo, April 29, Highway 11 near 99-mile marker, Kealakekua.

13. Elvis Sheppard, 43, of Kailua-Kona, April 29, Hina Lani and Kamanu streets, Kailua-Kona.

14. Aukai Ahuna, 15, of Honokaa, May 1, Pikake and Ohia streets, Honokaa.

15. Terrence Hilton, 36, of Grand Rapids, Mich., May 14, Saddle Road and Mamalahoa Highway, Kona.

16. Travis Serquina, 31, of Keaau, May 14, Highway 130 near Shower Drive, Hawaiian Paradise Park.

17. Hailame Lavaka, 37, of Waimea, May 17, Highway 19 near 92-mile marker, North Kona.

18. Hector Alfredo Barrientos Vigil, 33, of Captain Cook, May 17, Highway 19 near 92-mile marker, North Kona.

19. Obdulio Eliseo Garcia Orellana, 33, of Captain Cook, May 17, Highway 19 near 92-mile marker, North Kona.

20. Ulysses “Gino” Guillermo, 71, of Hilo, May 22, Highway 130 at Highway 11, Keaau.

21. Jonathan A.K. Brown, 31, of Ocean View, May 22, Ka‘u.

22. John Ashley Becker, 48, of Texas, May 28, Highway 11, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.**

23. Eric Figueroa, 25, of Kailua-Kona, May 29, Highway 11 near 69-mile marker, Naalehu.

24. Jacob De Jesus, 32, of Paauilo, June 7, Highway 19 near 36-mile marker, Paauilo.

25. Micaila-Lynn Tellio, 22, of Hilo, July 18, Highway 19 at Nahala Street, Hilo.

26. Nelsin Santos, 25, of Ocean View, Aug. 13, Kaiminani Drive at Ane Keohokalole Highway, Kailua-Kona.

27. Bernadette Chock, 71, of Kailua-Kona, Aug. 17, Highway 190 between Kaiminani Drive and Ahikawa Street, Kailua-Kona.

28. Ernest Jackson, 39, of Pahoa, Aug. 25, Highway 130 at Highway 132, Pahoa.

29. Glennon Pine, 43, of Paauilo, Aug. 27, Hauola Road near Pohakea Road, Paauilo.

30. Sarah Akiona, 21, of Honokaa, Sept. 2, Highway 19 north of Honomu Road, Honomu.

31. Napoleon Higuera, 49, of Hilo, Oct. 14, Saddle Road near 38-mile marker, Hamakua.

32. Yoshie Oshiro, 86, of Hilo, Oct. 20, Kinoole and Mamo streets, Hilo.

33. James Sakai, 61, of Kailua-Kona, Oct. 26, Highway 19 and Keahole Airport Road, North Kona.

34. Schayle Hanato-Wells, 29, of Honalo, Nov. 8, Highway 11 near 46-mile marker, Ka‘u.

35. Lori Ann Sato, 37, of Papaaloa, Dec. 2, Highway 19 near 34-mile marker, Paauilo.

36. Jerry Lee Wiseman, Dec. 6, Highway 19 near Hau Lane, Hilo.

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* Fatality not counted by police because it occurred on private road or property

** Fatality not counted by police because it occurred in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park