KAILUA-KONA — The fine for not using a four-wheel-drive vehicle on Waipio Valley Road could increase five-fold under a proposal moving through the state Legislature.
House Bill 529, introduced by Rep. Mark Nakashima (D-Hamakua, Hilo), seeks to make it a traffic violation under Hawaii Revised Statutes to use any vehicle other than a low-grade, four-wheel-drive vehicle to traverse the access road between the lookout and valley floor. The measure further restricts the use of all-wheel-drive vehicles on the road.
If signed into law, the bill would subject a driver to a $250 fine.
That’s fives times the current $50 fine assessed for violating Hawaii County Code if caught driving anything other than a 4×4 down the road. That ordnance has been in effect for more than a decade — and Hawaii County has had restrictions on vehicles traversing the roadway since the 1980s.
Nakashima said he introduced the bill after hearing stories and complaints from residents regarding increased use, safety concerns and general etiquette on the steep, narrow passage to access the sacred valley in Hamakua.
“And with the increase of four-wheel drive rentals, there are more people that are feeling that their car can go down the road so they can go down the road, but they don’t have the knowledge, expertise — in some cases, they don’t even know how to engage the four-wheel drive,” he said. “It just creates a number of safety issues for themselves and for the other users.”
But, when first contacted by the newspaper, Nakashima admitted being unaware of the law already in effect for the roadway, noting he and the area council councilperson had been in contact looking for ways to address safety concerns there. Signage at the top already advises use of the road is restricted to four-wheel drive vehicles, noting county ordnance.
“I think both she and I were looking for something that would be more of a deterrent,” he said Friday, also questioning if the current law was being enforced.
Requests to the Hawaii Police Department for numbers of citations written for those violating the code were unsuccessful as press time.
The Committee passed the bill on Transportation on Feb. 6. After a second reading on the House floor, it was referred to the Committee on Judiciary, which voted to pass the bill unamended Wednesday. The full House on Friday voted to transmit the measure to the Senate for further consideration.
“I support further restrictions on the type of vehicle that can be used to drive the extremely steep and narrow County of Hawaii road into Waipio Valley,” Honokaa resident Barbara Franklin wrote in testimony. “Until the County of Hawaii can upgrade the road or some alternate access is provided to tourists and locals who do not have four-wheel drive, this restriction makes sense provided that there is a person at the entrance with the full-time ability to enforce it.”
Nakashima said he’s also working with car rental companies — which already restrict using the vehicles on the road — to provide an educational brochure to visitors that would restate the companies’ policy that their vehicles should not be taken down into Waipio Valley.
“It would provide an additional influence on the tourists who think that, well, they have a four-wheel drive vehicle and they can go trekking down there,” he said.
Ross Birch, executive director Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, estimated in 2018 that 1,000 people visit the valley each day. The road, which descends 900 feet in less than a mile, has an average grade of 25 percent, though some areas are steeper. For reference, Halekii Street in Kealakekua is graded at 18 percent.