LIHUE — Kauai Police Department’s Lt. James Rodriguez laughed as he pushed a button that turned on the caution lights at the crosswalk at Rice Street near the Lihue Post Office.
“Are you coming this way?” he shouted to the man across the street. The man shook his head and walked in the opposite direction.
Rodriguez’s officers were standing outside the county building on Thursday watching the crosswalk to catch violators — namely cars not stopping for pedestrians — in the act.
During the sting operation, Rodriguez served as the “decoy” or pedestrian crossing Rice Street. He had one spotter and three officers handing out citations.
Rodriguez alternated between using the caution lights at the crosswalk and walking without the lights to test whether cars would stop.
“We’re not out here just to get them on a complete surprise,” he said. “That’s why I kind of got bright clothes. I got a walkie. We just want (people) to be aware.”
About 15 people used the crosswalk during the one-hour operation. Officers did not cite any drivers for failing to stop at the crosswalk, but they handed out tickets for cellphone and seat belt violations.
“Oh! Thank you!” he said in surprise to an elderly woman who stopped her car just a few feet in front of him in the middle of the crosswalk after not using the lights. “If she would have continued, she would have been OK. You’re going to get that where people stop all of a sudden. But I was still far enough where she could have gone.”
The Rice Street crosswalk is important not just because of a fatal accident that occurred last year, but because it’s used so often throughout each day.
“We had a tragedy here. She lost her life,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you get people who will stop, but then there is a driver behind them and who knows what they’re thinking. ‘Oh, I don’t have to stop.’ That’s what happens a lot.”
A little more than a year ago, 60-year-old Paulanna Larish was crossing Rice Street in the early morning hours by the Lihue Post office when a Toyota Tacoma hit her.
The man stopped his car and tried to help her, but as he did so, another car, a dark blue Mercury Mountaineer, drove past the crosswalk and struck Larish. It was a hit-and-run and she died at the scene. A driver was later arrested and charged.
It’s unclear if Larish used caution lights when she crossed Rice Street that fateful October morning, but Rodriguez said it shouldn’t have mattered. The car should have stopped.
“(The crosswalk) doesn’t need to have lights,” he said. “The lights are just more of an awareness. That’s why I’m not using it all the time. It’s a caution, telling everyone that we have a pedestrian ready to cross.”
Rodriguez said vehicles and pedestrians alike need to pay attention to roadway symbols and signs that are scattered across the island at crosswalks. If a sign has a pedestrian logo, it means the pedestrian has the right of way, he said.
“But if (the lights are) not on, and if the vehicle fails to yield to the pedestrian in the crosswalk, it doesn’t mean, oh, it’s the pedestrian’s fault,” he said. “It’s still the responsibility of the driver.”
If a driver fails to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk, it could cost them $140, said Sgt. Jason Overmyer.
The officers are watching for a number of things, Rodriguez said.
If the car does not stop when the person is walking in the crosswalk on their side of the road, that’s a violation, he said.
“They don’t have to wait until the light shuts off,” he said. “They can go as long as it is clear on their half.”
Rodriguez noted it’s important for a pedestrian to be aware of their surroundings when crossing the street. Simple things like looking both ways goes a long way, too, he said.
This project was a team effort between several agencies across Kauai, including the mayor’s office, the county and KPD, said Bev Brody of Get Fit Kauai. She’s an advocate for street improvements throughout Kauai.
“This isn’t a one time thing,” she said. “This is going to happen for months. Be ready to stop at a crosswalk.”
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said the partnership between agencies was meant to send a message.
“It’s about education, awareness and aloha,” he said. “We are keeping our people on their toes but in a safe way.”
According to data by Smart Growth America, Kauai County had nine pedestrian fatalities between 2003 and 2013, with 78 percent of fatalities occurring at posted speeds of under 30 miles per hour.
A recent TGI poll that asked readers if they’d ever almost been hit trying to cross the street at a crosswalk in Kauai found 41 percent of people said they have never had problems because drivers are respectful. Forty-three percent of readers said they had almost been hit too many times because drivers were always in a hurry even at a crosswalk. Sixteen percent of readers said they rarely use crosswalks because it’s too dangerous.
The county is planning to add lighted crosswalks at Kekaha Elementary School, Kapaa Middle School and King Kaumualii.