The Big Island makes up for more than half of the entire size of the state of Hawaii at just over 4,000 square miles—about half the size of New Jersey. Because of its size, navigating around the Big Island can be daunting, and driving around the entire island will take around eight hours.
What makes this island extra special, however, is the fact that it is continuously growing. With every volcanic eruption and lava flow, the island is putting on more and more surface area. Following the historic 2018 eruptions that destroyed 700 homes and buried 14 square miles of already existing land on Hawaii Island, the island had gained over 800 acres by the time the worst of the eruptions had stopped. This unique characteristic makes the roads and diving conditions subject to change as well, so it is best to be prepared.
Rules of the Road
The most important thing to remember about driving on Hawaii Island is to drive with "aloha." The local residents are typically courteous to visitors, as long as they show respect to the island by staying off private roads, observing local laws, and refraining from reckless driving.
- Speeding: Hawaii’s speeding laws are no joke. A first-time speeding violator can face fines of up to $200 and license suspension. For reckless driving, a first offense can mean up to 30 days in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines.
- Gasoline: Due to the cost of shipping gasoline to the Big Island, gas prices (along with the price of groceries) may also be more of a shock to visitors. Another essential factor to keep in mind is that parts of the island are limited in terms of available gas stations, so don’t plan on waiting until the last minute or until your tank is empty to fill up. If you’re a member, be sure to hit up the Costco store in Kona for by far the cheapest gas prices on the island.
- Alcohol: As with the rest of the United States, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher for drivers on Hawaii Island. Those with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher are considered a highly intoxicated driver and will face much stiffer penalties.
- Cellphones: The use of cell phones while operating a vehicle on Hawaii Island is against the law. Unless you have Bluetooth or a headset, you will need to pull over and turn the engines off first to use your phone.
- Car seats: Seat belts and child seats are also required by law. According to Hawaii's Child Passenger Restraint Law, children less than four-years-old must ride in a child safety seat, and children from four to eight must ride in a child passenger restraint or booster seat if they are less than 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weigh under 40 pounds.
- In case of emergency: There are several spread-out emergency call boxes along Saddle Road from Hilo, though don’t plan on relying on them. Breaking down in the non-reception areas around the island will almost always mean a long walk to find help. As visitors will most likely be renting a car on this island, the best way to get information on what to do in case of an emergency while driving on Hawaii Island is to ask your car rental company, who will have emergency roadside assistance and appropriate numbers to call. If all else fails, the number for emergencies is 911, and the county police non-emergency number is (808) 935-331. More information on emergency preparedness can be found on the Hawaii County Civil Defense website.
Pay attention to posted warnings, such as signs for flash flooding or falling rocks. The weather on Hawaii Island may be favorable most of the time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t experience the occasional dangerous weather event. Hurricane season affects the island during the season from June to November, and on the mountain of Mauna Kea, it isn't unusual to see snow in winter. Always check the weather report before setting out on a long journey. The sun sets early on the Hawaiian Islands, usually around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. depending on the time of year.
Speed Limit Signs
Hawaii Island’s wide-open spaces and beautiful scenery (paired with the continually changing posted speed limits) make it easy to speed accidentally. Pay attention to your surroundings, signs, and use cruise control when possible to avoid getting ticketed.
Unless you are very familiar with the roads on the Big Island, driving after dark will require an extra level of caution. The vast amount of road on this massive island is hard to maintain in some parts, so potholes and rough pavement are common as well. Rain makes for abysmal visibility on the Big Island, so check your weather reports before embarking on a long drive. There are no toll roads in Hawaii.
The Big Island is home to much more wildlife than most of the other islands, both due to its large size and the sheer amount of undeveloped terrain. Be sure to be on the lookout, especially at night, for wild animals such as goats and wild boar.
Hawaii State Highway 200, also known as Saddle Road, is one of the most scenic drives on the Island of Hawaii. The road reaches a maximum elevation of 6,765 feet and stretches for 54 miles. Along the way, you’ll find crossroads that will take you to Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as black lava fields, moon-like landscapes, and rolling hills. Due to the unpredictable weather changes and rough terrain, this road was once considered the most dangerous road in the state. Recent years have brought plenty of improvements to many sections of the road, though there are still a few notoriously dangerous and remote spots, many without cell phone service. Ask your car rental company for suggestions on driving along Saddle Road if you choose to do so, drive slowly with extreme caution, be sure to fill up on gas before setting out, and check the weather reports for visibility.
Police officers on the Big Island aren’t marked in the same way as the police cars on the US mainland. Similarly to the police department in Honolulu, Hawaii County (where the Big Island is located) has a fleet of marked police cars as well as subsidized police cars. That means the department allows select officers to use their own personal vehicles as police cars. Both types will be identifiable by the detachable blue lights on top.
Don’t make the mistake of leaving valuables unattended in your rental car on the Big Island or any of the major Hawaiian Islands for that matter. Car theft has become an increasing issue in tourist-heavy areas, so your expensive new camera is much safer on your person than left alone in the car or the trunk.