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Hit-and-run crashes are increasing in many major cities, and fatal hit-and-run collisions are rising nationally as legislators in several states look to toughen up laws to address this troubling "plague."
These crashes have reached such epidemic proportions in Los Angeles that, during one recent year, nearly half of all collisions in the city involved a driver who fled the scene.
Crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the number of fatal hit-and-run crashes is trending upward, from 1,274 in 2009, to 1,393 in 2010, to 1,449 in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
Perhaps more significantly, the 13.7% increase in hit-and-run deaths over that three-year period occurred while traffic deaths overall were falling 4.5%, from 33,883 in 2009 to 32,367 in 2011.
"The problem is bigger than I think most people are aware," says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The foundation's analysis of hit-and-run crashes found that about one in five of all pedestrian fatalities are hit-and-runs, and 60% of hit-run fatalities have pedestrians as victims, he says. "Alcohol is a major, major part of the problem, from the driver's perspective, especially. The main thing we can do as a society to sort of combat this problem is to simply be more alert as pedestrians," Kissinger says.
"People find themselves in these situations, and what do you do?" says Sara Solnick, chairwoman of the Department of Economics at the University of Vermont, who has studied hit-and-run crashes. "Drivers are more likely to run if they feel there is a reason to do so. They're more likely to have high blood-alcohol content, or they're driving without a license, or they're very young drivers."
In a recent, high-profile hit-and-run case, a 22-year-old Ohio man confessed in an online video that went viral to killing a man in a drunken-driving crash in June. Matthew Cordle of Dublin, Ohio, was sentenced last month to 6½ years in prison for aggravated vehicular homicide and DUI in a wrong-way interstate crash that killed Vincent Canzani, 61.
Los Angeles has been ground zero for hit-and-run crashes after LA Weekly reported late last year that there were 20,000 such incidents in the city each year, with 4,000 resulting in injuries or death. In 2009, the newspaper reported, 48% of the city's crashes were hit-and-run, compared with 11% nationally.
"There is a values problem," says California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area who introduced a bill that extended the statute of limitations for hit-and-run offenses from three to six years. The bill was signed into law last month and takes effect July 1.
"I had been reading the stories that Los Angeles had this just absolute plague … of hit-and-run accidents," Gatto says. "It really comes down to folks being left for dead on the side of the road by the person who is in a best position to call 911. When it comes down to it, the legislature speaks for society's values. Unless we did something, we were failing from a values standpoint."
Following the LA Weekly story, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck released a report that maintained that the city's hit-and-run crash rate compared favorably with other major cities, such as New York, Chicago and Houston.
Around the USA, the rise in hit-and-run crashes is leading to tougher laws in some of the states with the highest rates of resulting deaths.
• In Texas, legislators moved to close a loophole that police officers said encouraged intoxicated drivers involved in crashes to flee the scene. Before Sept. 1, the maximum penalty for failing to render aid was just half that for causing a drunken-driving crash death. The penalty for leaving the scene of a crash was raised from a third-degree felony, with a maximum 10-year prison term, to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison — same as for intoxicated manslaughter.
• In Florida, where the State Patrol says there were nearly 70,000 hit-and-run crashes in 2012 and three of every five road fatalities were pedestrians struck by hit-run drivers, legislators are considering a bill that would impose a mandatory sentence of at least three years on hit-and-run drivers. The sentence would be seven years if someone is seriously injured and 10 years in fatal crashes.
• In 2012, Arizona enacted a law requiring that any driver who leaves the scene of a crash resulting in serious injury automatically have their license suspended for five years. If there's a death, the automatic suspension is 10 years, not including time in jail.
• Also last year, Colorado enacted a law that made a hit-and-run crash with serious bodily injury a Class 4 felony, which carries the same penalty as driving while drunk.