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Hit and run: preventable tragedy
 
(Photo courtesy: Erik Helgestad)
 

By Ernest Gurulé
egurule@lavozcolorado.com
 
04/09/2014

Hit-and-run incidents are one of those things that most people give very little thought. But, perhaps, they should. Why? Because the chances of actually being the victim of a hit-and-run incident are higher than you might suspect. Also, what happens afterward is something few people bother to consider. Again, it may be is worth some time and thought.

There is no such thing as a routine hit-and-run incident. There is also no such thing as a good year for hit-and-runs in Denver or most other metropolitan areas; few good things come out of any. And while these cases are challenging because they often happen late at night when there are no eyewitnesses, police nonetheless take all such incidents seriously and for good reason.

Last year in Denver, police responded to 5,448 hit-and-run incidents, including four resulting in death. This year, the city is on a much lower trajectory but that still translates into millions of dollars in damages, injuries and medical costs, higher insurance rates and, worst of all, death.
In the first four months of 2014 Denver has experienced more than 1,200 hit-and-run incidents, including three resulting in death. The city is on a pace well short of 2011 when police responded to 6,678 incidents and a dozen deaths.

“We prioritize,” says Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson. “If a person is hurt as a result, it obviously takes a higher priority.” In the end, it comes down to a matter of resources. “But all hit-and-run incidents are investigated,” Jackson says, because all involve property damage or worse.

In March, Colorado became the first state to enact a law that authorizes statewide alerts for hit-and-run incidents involving serious injury or death. The law, similar to Amber Alerts that are issued when authorities are looking for a missing person, is the result of the hit-and-run death of 21-year-old valet Jose Medina. Medina was killed while doing his job in 2011 outside the now shuttered Rock Star Lounge at 940 Lincoln.

House Bill 14-1191---the Medina Alert Program---was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper only last month. “It allows us to push back against hit-and-run,” Hickenlooper told reporters outside the Capital at the signing ceremony. “I think people feel that they get away with this, and as we do a better job of apprehending them, that will change.”

The bill also includes the use of highway road sign alerts as well as radio and television bulletins to be broadcast when there has been an incident involving serious injury or death caused by a hit-and-run driver.

Prior to the governor’s bill signing, law enforcement counted on a program called Taxis Patrol---essentially, a Neighborhood Watch on wheels---to help them out. Cabbies were trained to be alert for fleeing suspects when they saw certain situations or accidents as well as other crimes. The program worked with a reasonable degree of success in nabbing suspected hit-and-run drivers. In all, more than 5,000 cab drivers took part in the program.

In the Medina case, four individuals have been convicted and sentenced to varying terms in prison. But in the future, sentences for individuals involved in hit-and-run incidents that cause serious injury or death could become even steeper. HB 1158, now in committee, calls for higher minimum sentences for those convicted. The bill also eliminates the possibility of probation or suspended sentences.

According to the American Automobile Association, hit-and-run incidents are on the rise across the U.S. Between 2009 to 2011, they rose by 13 percent. Fatalities caused by hit-and-run drivers also increased in the same period, rising to 1,393 in 2011 from 1,274 in 2009.

In an odd twist, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that in that same three-year period, hit-and-run fatalities actually increased by 13.7 percent as traffic deaths were falling by 4.5 percent. The anomaly has become the reality in Los Angeles where police say in a recent year, nearly half of all vehicle crashes were hit-and-run incidents.

Police say there are a number of reasons that drivers flee the scene of an accident. In many of these situations alcohol, which can aggravate the gravity of the incident, is involved. In other cases, a driver makes the choice to leave because, cops say, he has no license or insurance. And then, there are those other cases when it is simply a matter of youth and immaturity.

While Colorado has demonstrated a no-nonsense attitude on this type of crime, the chances of nabbing most hit-and-run drivers, are not always good. “Yes, we investigate them as crimes, but the reality is that it’s a difficult case to prove,” says one Englewood patrol officer. “We go to their homes and it is not uncommon for a suspect to say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t me driving my car’ or ‘I lent my car to a friend or a cousin or something.’” Unless there is indisputable proof linking a suspect to the crime, “it’s hard to move ahead.”

The driver who killed brothers Za May Khan and Ah Zet Khan, ages eight and six, last March near 14th and Yosemite remains unknown. The hit-and-run driver responsible for the deaths of 26-year-old Afghanistan war veteran Jesse Pringle in Lakewood in 2012 as well as the person whose vehicle killed 50-year-old bicyclist David Pickett in Denver in 2011 also remains unknown. While police have not given up finding suspects, the cases grow colder by the day.

While all hit-and-run accidents are regrettable, many---if not most---are also preventable. Many of these incidents involve young or adolescent-aged children. Police say too often young people are simply careless; jaywalking where they should not be, riding bicycles in places where they should not or simply ignoring traffic and traffic signs.

Police also say common factors involved in hit-and-run situations include drivers not paying attention to what they are doing. Common distractions include talking while driving or, worse, texting behind the wheel. Cops say ‘save the conversation and correspondence’ for a later.

National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the agency that tracks all traffic deaths nationwide, indicates that pedestrian fatalities have risen over the last three years. In 2012, 4,793 pedestrian deaths caused by drivers were recorded. The numbers for 2011 and 2010 were 4,457 and 4,302, respectively. Hit-and-run fatalities in 2012 totaled 884. The victims of hit-and-run incidents that involve physical damage to a vehicle are not always prepared for the reality that accompanies this type of crime, says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. If the person who has caused the incident is never found, is underinsured or has no insurance, “You’re often the one left holding the bag. You pay for the damages and the injuries you sustain, even if you have the right insurance.” If the driver of the vehicle that hit yours is ever found, the insurance company will try and recover damages, but there is no guarantee.

Walker says the best advice she has for anyone is to have a conversation with their insurance agent. “Ask them what coverage you have. Ask your agent what type of insurance do I need. And ask them, ‘what would you recommend.’”

While it would seem to be a money-saving proposition to have a higher deductible---which means a lower premium---it is not always the wisest decision. In fact, Walker says paying a higher premium could actually save you money in the long run, particularly if you are involved in an accident with someone who leaves the scene, has only liability or no insurance at all. “You do have choices. You need to weigh them carefully.”

But despite what Denver is experiencing, it pales in comparison to other places, especially places like Florida, Miami, in particular. Traffic studies show that four cities in Florida have the highest hit-and-run statistics in the country. In 2013, Miami counted 12,318 hit-and-run cases, an improvement from the previous year. In 2012 there were more than 15,000 such incidents. Put another way, in 2012, Miami police could look forward to investigating 35 hit-and-run calls each day.

 

 

 

 

 
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