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Big Island and Automobiles, Part I: Driving in Hawaii

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

I am often asked by clients, what type of vehicle is best suited for Big Island driving and our new lifestyle? "Should we buy a car here or bring it from the mainland?" To answer that, my team and I put together a series of blogs about the Big Island and Automobiles. They will help you make an informed decision about choosing and buying a car in Hawaii, along with some useful driving tips that may save you hassle and frustration once you are on the road. Some of them will surprise you, you will not want to miss these tips!

Road conditions and traffic

Driving conditions on average are good, but there are not enough roads and not enough lanes. The main highway called Hwy 19 (aka Hawaii Beltway or Queen Ka'ahumanu Hwy) goes around the Big Island in a large circle. Some more minor roads cross different parts of the land and connect to it. Most roads and highways have only one lane in each direction, which can create a potential for traffic jams in peak hours. Especially if you are heading south to Kona in the mid or late afternoon on weekdays, be prepared for delays.

The first thing you notice once on the road on the Big Island is the abundance of trucks. I am talking small pickup trucks, large trucks, construction trucks, landscaping trucks; you name it. That type of vehicle seems to be the number one choice for locals. Young boys on the Big Island don't dream of owning Ferraris when they grow up, but cool, large pickup trucks with lots of chrome and big wheels. Besides hospitality, the most common occupations here are construction, landscaping, and other services that require this type of vehicle, and sharing the road with them is a part of life here. Besides, trucks are very practical for island life. You can easily haul surfboards, paddleboards, and other gear, allowing you to go places not accessible for other types of cars - more about it in our next blogs.

It is highly advisable to have a GPS since some streets have no signs, or if they do, you will not remember the names anyway. Most are in the Hawaiian language, which may take some time to get used to.


Yes, the weather in Hawaii is practically perfect in every way, but we do get occasional fog, downpours, and flash floods. When this happens, the water can get deep enough to go for a swim. Lava rock can wash into the road, especially on the island's eastern side, creating hazardous road conditions! So pay attention to those highway warning signs, they could save your life! Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency does a fairly good job of warning people of upcoming changes in weather conditions, which you will likely hear on one of the local radio stations if you play it in the car.

Night Driving

If you have visited the island, you might already be aware of the low light conditions during the night hours. Big Island is home to one of the largest observatories in the world, located on the top of the Mauna Kea Mountain. To prevent light pollution, county regulations limit the amount of street and signage lights. Hence, you will not see any flashy neons or other types of bright lighting. If there are any, all the streetlights use low voltage bulbs pointed down towards the ground so that nothing would disturb the stargazing for the astronomers on the top of Mauna Kea. Many roads, highways, and neighborhoods on the island are not lit at all, so if you leave the resorts at night to go to other parts of the island, you may find yourself submerged in complete darkness, with the only lights coming from the other cars. If your night vision is not the best and it starts raining, things could get complicated. It gets dark early in paradise, about 7 p.m. in July and 6 p.m. in December, so plan accordingly.

Many roads and highways do not have guardrails on the sides, so if you end up driving off the road, you may quickly find yourself in the lava field with your car totaled. That is one of the main reasons why car insurance is usually more expensive on the island.


Despite the abundance of land, you will find that many parking spots next to shopping centers and other public places are pretty small. If you have a large, expensive car, finding a safe parking spot may present a challenge. We will cover the best car choices for the Big Island in our next automobile blog, so stay tuned.

Gasoline and Electric

Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock when filling up your car. The cost of gasoline is higher than the continental U.S. due to shipping costs. Also, it's best not to wait until you're almost empty because some parts of the island have limited access to gas stations – especially on a Sunday afternoon.

There is some infrastructure for electric vehicles as well, though with some caveats. More about it in the next auto blog.

Speed Limits and Cell Phones

It's easy to get distracted by all of Hawaii's natural beauty, but take note that Hawaii has an 'excessive speeding' statute that carries some pretty hefty penalties. Fines run between $500 and $1,000, which is money that would be more fun spent elsewhere. In addition, speed limits change quite often, especially when you are driving around the island, so pay attention.

Cell phone use is strictly prohibited while driving, and this law is strictly enforced. If you need to use your cell phone, it's required that you pull over to the side of the road and turn the car engine off.

Police cars on the Big Island are generally not marked. They are usually identified only by the blue light on top of their vehicles. We have the best force in the nation. The officers are friendly and understanding, but it doesn't mean they will not ticket you for speeding or using your cell phone. Beware of speed traps and watch the signs; it is better to be safe than sorry!

Drive with Aloha

You will encounter all sorts of drivers here: locals with big trucks, families with a bunch of kids on the back of a pickup, first-time tourists struggling to find their destination, etc. In addition, you will share the roads with cyclists, as well as the occasional but unexpected wild goat or pig, so stay alert and, most importantly, be a courteous driver. In other words, drive with Aloha. Life is slow here, and in most cases, people are not in a rush to go places or do anything, unlike it is on the mainland. So unrush, be patient, relax, and enjoy the beauty that is Hawaii!

Ta Da!



Stay tuned for our next auto-related blogs where we will cover the best car choices for the Big Island, whether it is better to buy a car here or bring it from the mainland, and much, much more!

What was your driving experience here, on the Big Island? Would you please share in the comments below?

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