WAIKAPU - Traffic deaths in Maui County have decreased by about one-third this year, and some police officers attribute the decline to an increase in enforcement for intoxicated driving and other traffic offenses.
"We would like to think there has been a direct correlation with the traffic fatalities," said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section. "The numbers are a direct reflection of the work the officers do."
With the number of drunken-driving arrests in Maui County approaching 1,000 this year, some of the officers making the arrests were recognized Tuesday at a law enforcement awards luncheon sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii and Maui Toyota.
DUI Task Force officer Carl Eguia (left) displays his Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii 2013 Top Cop award with Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section. During a MADD luncheon, Eguia headed the list of officers recognized for making DUI arrests.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
Eguia (left) and Lanai patrol officer Kunal Chopra were among Maui County police officers honored at the recognition luncheon.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
"You guys are our heroes on the roadways, keeping our community safe," Abigail Nickell, executive director of MADD Hawaii, told the officers during the ceremony at Maui Tropical Plantation.
Awards were presented to the officer who made the largest number of DUI arrests in each of the six police patrol districts from January to Nov. 8 and to DUI Task Force officer Carl Eguia, who received the 2013 Top Cop award for the 128 intoxicated-driving arrests he made during the period.
"A lot of the arrests come from speeding or reckless driving stops," said Eguia, who has been a police officer for nearly eight years and on the task force for about a year and a half. "The community's been calling in a lot of reckless driving, which has helped us. We can't be everywhere.
"The community has called in a lot more. It's nice to know they're more concerned about this, along with us."
In addition to arresting some repeat DUI offenders, Eguia said he has seen many instances where people are using designated sober drivers - "which is a good thing."
Of the 13 traffic deaths in Maui County so far this year, four were alcohol-related and one was drug-related, Uedoi said. Police are awaiting toxicology test results in the two most recent fatalities, both of which resulted in the deaths of moped operators.
Statistics show that almost half of all traffic fatalities in the state involve alcohol, according to MADD.
The number of traffic deaths in Maui County this year is down 35 percent from the 20 traffic deaths at the same time last year.
In contrast, the number of DUI arrests is up, with 943 arrests for intoxicated driving through the end of October, a 20 percent increase from the 786 arrests during the same period last year, Uedoi said.
Police have stepped up enforcement of speeding and other traffic violations, which are usually the reasons for stopping a driver who ends up being arrested for drunken driving, he said.
Of this year's intoxicated driving arrests, 120 were for driving under the influence of drugs.
With the four DUI Task Force officers and a Kihei patrol officer certified as drug recognition experts, Maui County has led the state in arrests for driving under the influence of drugs, said DUI Task Force Sgt. Dolly Poepoe.
Police are working to have more officers certified to recognize drug-impaired driving, she added.
DUI arrests have increased significantly this year because patrol officers are making more arrests, Poepoe said.
DUI Task Force officer Justin Mauliola, who worked as a Lahaina patrol officer before being promoted to the task force in June, said he sees drivers under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, often marijuana.
In Lahaina, he said, many of those arrested for DUI aren't tourists but are residents who have been drinking. "They live right down the road, so they think they can make it home," Mauliola said. "And it's usually when it happens."
Uedoi said the patrol officers making DUI arrests include some new officers, who have been taught well by field training officers.
"Officers are filling these patrol ranks and immediately making an impact by making arrests, which is a good thing," Uedoi said. "It's good that these officers are taking initiative this young in their careers. They want to make a difference."
MADD awards were given to some of those newer officers, including Kihei patrol officer Ryan Ehlers, who made 16 DUI arrests; Lahaina patrol officer Joshua Kalb, 12 arrests; Lanai patrol officer Kunal Chopra, eight arrests; Molokai patrol officer Daniel Imakyure, four arrests; and Hana patrol officer Gershom Slonim, four arrests.
Also recognized was veteran Wailuku patrol officer Duke Pua, a former traffic officer, who made 38 DUI arrests.
Chopra, who has been a police officer for nearly four years, said police are seeing more DUIs on Lanai as the population grows. The eight arrests he made this year are higher than the average of two DUI arrests a year on the island in the past, he said.
"I don't see the numbers going down," he said. "But Lanai's such a small place that people pay attention. You can see it actually makes a difference."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.