Speed traps kindle Hawaiian ire

SUN JOURNAL

Tickets: A new crackdown on violators, using cameras hidden in unmarked vans, is denounced as a lamentable break with the aloha spirit.

March 16, 2002|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HONOLULU - This land of sunshine and pineapples has some of the lowest speed limits in the nation, and Hawaiian drivers have long felt free to violate them without fear of getting caught.

That changed in January, when the state began issuing speeding tickets through the mail, based on pictures taken of the alleged violators by digital cameras hidden in unmarked vans.

The program has provoked a political backlash that's loud, angry and very un-Hawaiian.

Dubbed "tele-vans" by angry motorists, a play on "Taliban," the vans and their cameras are seen as a dastardly breach of the aloha spirit of tolerance and reasonableness.

"Being sneaky and fining people for doing something that isn't hurting anybody is not aloha," fumes George Chai, a chef at a Waikiki restaurant whose wife was tagged for speeding.

Use of cameras to enforce traffic laws is controversial in numerous mainland cities, but the flap here has a Hawaiian flavor born of the islands' unique history.

The low speed limits on Honolulu streets and highways are a holdover from the days before statehood, when many roads were meandering paths through pineapple fields.

With an infusion of federal funds, the roads have been greatly expanded and modernized, but the go-slow concept of speed limits is unchanged since the mid-1930s. Only a few miles of highway have a limit as high as 55 mph.

Where else but in Hawaii would a six-lane thoroughfare - the Kalaniana'ole Highway - have a posted limit of 35 mph?

Bumper stickers advise, "Slow down! This ain't the Mainland."

Faced with what they feel are unrealistic limits, Hawaiian drivers have developed a tendency to view speed-limit signs as advisory, not mandatory.

Chronically understaffed, the Honolulu Police Department occasionally cracks down on speeders but concedes that traffic is not a day-to-day priority.

To correct this laissez-faire approach, the state signed a contract with Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. to run a three-year pilot program.

The firm gets a slice of each ticket paid. When a motorist is fined $77 for going 55 mph in a 45-mph zone, for example, Affiliated Computer gets $29.25.

Hawaiians accuse the firm of working on a bounty system. That feeling increased when news surfaced that some tickets were for driving 6 mph over the limit.

A judge recently ruled that no ticket could be issued unless the driver was going at least 9 mph over the posted limit, which the judge said has been the unofficial rule used by the Honolulu police.

Brian Minaai, director of the state Department of Transportation, says many tickets are for drivers going 75 mph to 85 mph in zones where the limit is 45 mph or 50 mph. One driver was going 90 mph on the winding Pali Highway through the mountains separating Honolulu from the Windward Side.

"Anybody who drives 85 percent or 100 percent above the posted limit is a threat to everybody else on the road," Minaai says.

Tourists are not exempt. Many are returning home to find tickets forwarded to them by rental car agencies.

In most cities where cameras are used, the local police are boosters. Not in Honolulu.

The police officers union is opposed, and the police department is neutral. Officers once supplemented their salaries - some of the lowest in the nation - with overtime pay for doing traffic enforcement.

When a Honolulu officer ticketed one of the camera vans for speeding, radio disc jockeys went ballistic with joy.

Some radio stations specialize in "camera van alerts," providing updated intelligence on where the vans are parked. Motorists are buying plastic license plate holders to make their plates unreadable by the cameras.

Attorneys have gotten several dozen tickets thrown out of court on technicalities, including the lack of an assurance on the ticket that the camera operator was properly trained. The state has printed a new batch of tickets.

Attorney Michael Kam thinks part of the reaction is related to the beating Hawaii's tourist economy has taken since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"People here are mostly laid back, but these are bad times for Hawaii," Kam said. "People are losing their jobs, taking two to three jobs to survive. The van-cams just increased the stress on everybody."

The state Legislature is split. Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano and the legislator heading the transportation committee are of the "mend it, don't end it" philosophy.

But another key legislator is thinking of withdrawing his support. He received a ticket in the mail that he says is unfair because he was not driving his car that day.

Under the law, the registered owner of the car is presumed to be the driver. The owner has to prove to a judge that it was someone else, although the method for doing that is unclear.

Minaai says he continues to believe the program will mean fewer speeders and traffic fatalities. Hawaii has about 100 traffic fatalities a year.

A dozen people have been killed in racing incidents on Oahu since 1995. A pending bill would confiscate the car of anyone caught racing.

One court challenge to the cameras asserts that the laser technology used to calibrate speed is flawed; another claims that the brilliant Hawaiian sunshine puts a glare on windshields and makes it impossible to determine the driver's identity.

Victor Bakke, one of the island's top criminal defense attorneys, started taking ticket cases after his wife got two tickets on the Likelike Highway. Cars traveling to Honolulu pick up speed as they go through a tunnel, and the highway begins a sharp drop in elevation.

"I said I better get involved or it's going to cost me a fortune," Bakke says. "Everybody is involved here. This is the worst thing to hit Hawaii since Pearl Harbor."

Tony Perry is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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