Palm trees, roaring surf, slow speeds and lots of traffic

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As I was driving along the H1 interstate in Honolulu last week, I noticed a police car had pulled over a BMW 650i convertible. The officer was ticketing the driver for speeding.

I could feel the driver’s pain. I enjoy driving a fast car as much as the next person and Hawaii is less suited to driving fast than any other state. The pace of life in the islands is leisurely. Distances are short and the mostly two-lane roads can be narrow with few passing zones. Hawaiian highways aren’t suited to automobiles bred on the German autobahn.

During my recent weeklong vacation in the island state (five days on the Big Island and three on Oahu) I never saw a speed limit higher than 60 mph, the limit on the multi-lane H1, an “interstate” that never crosses state lines. Clocking in at just under 30 miles from end to end, the H1 is the longest freeway in Hawaii. On most roads the posted limits are 35 and the limits seem to vary frequently. I almost felt a sense of wind-in-the-hair liberation at the sight of a 45 mph sign.

The cramped driving environment made me wonder why anyone would pony up $90,000 plus for a beautiful BMW convertible.

The vehicle population varies widely from island to island. Rental cars prevail in the resort areas of the Big Island, where Detroit 3 vehicles rule. Ford Fusions and Chevrolet Traverses are common as sparrows. But the vehicle that’s perfectly suited to the Big Island’s roads is the Jeep Wrangler, a hugely popular rental unit.

Wranglers have two features perfect for Hawaiian driving: all-terrain capability and a removable roof. The Wrangler is an entirely appropriate vehicle for an island where lava flows have been known to cover highways; where some hills on secondary roads are nose-bleedingly steep; and where the highest roads go nearly 14,000 feet above sea level.

You might even violate your rental car contract if you take it over the center of the island via the lofty, twisty, car-sickness-inducing Saddle Road that goes between the Big Island’s two soaring, awe-inspiring volcanic peaks Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Over on Oahu -- at 567-square miles, less than half the area of metropolitan Detroit -- electric cars are gaining traction because of the short travel distances. From one end of the island to another is about 40 miles.

Honolulu is the capital of bad traffic jams. Altogether, Hawaii’s 1.3 million people own about 1 million registered cars, most of them on Oahu. There are only 1,102 miles of roads, so you have to make up your mind not to be in a hurry to get from A to B. But with scenery like this -- roaring surf, wide beaches, swaying palms, and velvet green mountains -- exactly what would be the rush anyway?

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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