State to look into Kuhio corridor safety, efficacy

A head-on collision Tuesday, resulting in a double fatality and the four-hour closure of Kuhio Highway, has the public questioning the safety of the only road between Lihu‘e and Wailua as well as the efficacy of existing emergency routes.

Benhur Nono, 44, of Kapa‘a, and Colin Sunada, 32, of Lihu‘e, died after Nono’s northbound vehicle crossed the centerline and struck Sunada’s southbound car around 4:40 p.m. near the Hilton Kauai Beach Resort.

Sunada’s 29-year-old wife, Marry, and their 6-month-old daughter were taken to Wilcox Memorial Hospital in critical condition. The baby was airlifted to The Queen’s Medical Center, where she remained yesterday. Marry Sunada was listed in serious condition as of 5 p.m. yesterday.

Police said speed was a factor in the accident.

In light of the deaths, which bring Kaua‘i’s traffic fatalities to 10 for the year, the state Department of Transportation’s Highways Division will investigate the safety of the island’s main artery. DOT spokeswoman Tammy Mori said the evaluation will determine long- and short-term recommendations, and will commence after Kaua‘i police complete an accident report.

Suggested changes could include altering the speed limit or adding a median, though both will have to be studied thoroughly, Mori said. A median, for example, would eliminate left turns onto the highway.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority,” she said.

Incidentally, the state is in the environmental stage of widening Kuhio Highway to four lanes from three, and expects the additional lane and broader shoulders to improve safety and congestion. However, construction is not expected to begin until late 2009.

Traffic fatalities are up 42 percent this year over last — eight collisions resulting in 10 deaths have been reported so far this year, compared to seven accidents resulting in seven deaths through August 2007.

That count includes an all-too-familiar scene from January in which Kuhio Highway was closed in both directions near Wailua Golf Course for four hours due to a head-on collision that killed one man.

“I’m very concerned about the number of serious traffic collisions, including the number of fatalities that have occurred thus far,” Police Chief Darryl Perry said yesterday.

The Traffic Safety Unit will investigate to determine what may have exacerbated the accident, and if factors relating to county or state roadways are identified, reports will submitted for further assessments by expert engineers, Perry said.

Already this year, the department has stepped up enforcement of speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Perry said the common threads among accidents on Kaua‘i are nothing new: speed, alcohol, inattention, reckless driving and mechanical failure.

Alternate route

Both directions of Kuhio Highway were closed as a result of the crash, and remained so until the Wailua emergency bypass — a privately owned cane haul road that the county has a contract to use in emergencies — was opened at 6:20 p.m. Passenger vehicles were allowed to inch southbound until dark, when the road was closed due to safety concerns.

A single lane of Kuhio was used for through traffic around 7:30 p.m., and an hour later the highway was re-opened.

Still, most Kaua‘i residents and visitors in the area remained trapped on either side of the bottleneck until 8:30 p.m.

For many, the hours of waiting heightened frustrations about the county’s contingency plans. Yesterday two Kaua‘i County Council members said the county should examine whether the cane haul road suffices for such emergencies.

“I absolutely think it’s very important for us from a standpoint of public safety to find out what we can do,” Jay Furfaro, council chair, said. He noted that bond funding later this year could provide a means to explore alternatives.

Councilman Mel Rapozo, chair of the Public Works Committee, said the existing emergency road would have done the job if it had been maintained properly. A “frustrated” Rapozo sent a letter to the county Public Works Department yesterday asking for attention to the issue.

“If the emergency road had been open, traffic would have been able to move,” he said.

• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com

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