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avoid hawaii’s top three killers

No. 1 Danger: The road.

Solution: Your inner auntie.

The leading cause of death in Hawaii, after illness, is the common traffic accident. In 2006, Hawaii ranked 18th for fatalities; in 2007 we had 138 deaths (statistics, USNHTSA).

Yeah, yeah, cars kill a lot of people everywhere. But there are signs that Hawaii drivers are worse, and maybe meaner, than in other states–else why have pedestrian deaths doubled in both 2009 and 2010? In the last week we’ve had a couple of hit-and-run fatalities that seem particularly callous and, even worse, normal. As I know from covering the first couple of Ironman Triathlons, a major reason the event was moved to the Big Island in 1982 was our drivers were intentionally crowding the bicyclists off the road, when they weren’t throwing beer cans in their faces.

Who are these drivers? Take a look in the mirror before you answer. We all are guilty of going too fast, cutting in or out of a crowded lane, taking a blind turn too tightly. The fact that we have some of the worst traffic in the nation certainly feeds road rage and dangerous haste. Add frequent rain and the shortest onramps in the nation, and our chances of losing control, physically and/or emotionally, goes way up.

The fix? Slow down, and show some aloha. As they said in Driver’s Ed, leave plenty room ahead and behind. Shine on the loser in the monster Tacoma giving you the finger and riding your bumper. When it’s wet, drive like your auntie so that everyone arrives alive.

No. 2 Danger: The sea.

Solution: Avoid the impact zone.

The other day I saw two parents leave their small kids wading alone at Makapuu, despite the shorebreak and repeated warnings from the lifeguard. These are the kinds of people responsible for the second leading cause of accidental death in Hawaii: our surf. We have the best lifeguards and water safety program in the world, but did you ever see how many of those guys and gals have gray hair at 30? Did you ever wonder if you gave them some of those gray hairs?

Lifeguards save us when they can see us. Most drownings and disappearances take place in areas without surveillance. Surfers are rarely victims, if they know how to judge a wave and what to do. Snorkelers die because the less experienced often don’t look up to notice they’ve cruised into an impact zone. Tourists on dry land die from standing with arms full of cameras and brains on idle until they’re swept away. Fishermen and ‘opihi pickers die, caught by waves on rocks and reefs. Currents are part of the equation here, created by surf and equally dangerous, because they’re less detectable. They have no respect for paradise, claiming beauty-bedazzled hikers on the Kalalau Trail who’ve gone for a swim at Hanakapiai. When I was there in the mid-‘90s, a warning sign’s death tally was around 60. Now, it’s at 82.

In a new FEMA-sponsored book, Natural Hazards, the Environment, and Our Communities, the team of authors, led by UH professor Charles Fletcher, reveal that high surf accounts for 50 percent more fatalities than the next category. Due to our lack of a sheltering continental shelf, Hawaii’s waters can get nasty anytime–and fast. Our shorelines get particularly dangerous in winter, when North Pacific Swells and Northeast Trade Waves come driving in, and when the trades falter, Kona Storm Waves.

The fix? Never swim alone. If in doubt, don’t go out. Never turn your back on the sea. If the area around you is wet, retreat to where it’s dry. Keep your children behind you, not in front. If you’re fishing, drop the pole and run. Don’t snorkel outside the reef.

No. 3 Danger: The rain.

Solution: Look uphill. Often.

The third leading cause of deaths and the leading cause of weather-related fatalities, is the rain. How can that be? Are there really 20 to 30 people a year who don’t notice that, like, the water is rising up to their necks?

Actually, that can happen in as fast as three minutes. So what you’re really asking is, “Am I alert enough to notice that this low place in the road, this swimming hole where I’m messing around, this waterfall I’m blissing out under–is 180 seconds away from sweeping me away?”

Our steep-rising mountains are cloud traps that turn our ahupuaa into rain gutters. So if the water is brown or disturbed, look uphill. If you see clouds up in the mountains, pack it up. If the water begins to rise, run. Uphill. If you’re in a car, don’t cross that stream when you come to it. Even if it means spending the night sleeping in the back seat, stay on higher ground.