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54 people were killed in hit-and-run crashes last year

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A small percentage of drivers are ever convicted

In 2018, cyclists pause to take pictures of memorial for a cyclist who was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
AP

Keisha Saravia, 38, was crossing Main Street in front of her house last month in Broadway-Manchester when she was struck by a white sedan.

The driver did not stop to see if Saravia—then nine months pregnant with her sixth child—was all right, or even to call 911. The car sped off, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, and Saravia and her unborn baby later died at a hospital.

I don’t even have words,” Saravia’s brother, Ronald Granados, told reporters this month. “Today, [the driver] impacted our family, but in a week or two weeks he could do the same thing to another family.”

Granados was speaking at a news conference, where city officials announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the “arrest and conviction” of the driver, whose identity is still unknown.

Statistics indicate the reward will likely go unclaimed.

Less than 1 percent of drivers who fled a crash scene where someone was injured were eventually convicted of a felony, which carries a maximum sentence of four years, data provided by the Los Angeles County District Attorney and LAPD show.

“There are just a heck of a lot of people who are getting away with this,” says Jim Pocrass, a Los Angeles-based on attorney who represents hit-and-run victims in civil court.

There were more than 100,000 hit-and-run cases in the city of Los Angeles from 2014 to 2018. Of those, 23,698 were felony hit-and-run cases, meaning that someone was hurt in the crash. Fewer than 16,000 drivers were arrested in that four-year time span, and only 715 of them on suspicion of felony crimes.

Ultimately, prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office won convictions in just 169 of the cases investigated by LAPD, data released by the department in response to a public records request show.

Because a hit-and-run can be tried as either a misdemeanor or a felony, in less severe crashes, drivers may have faced lesser charges. Likewise, in deadly crashes, drivers may have also been charged with more serious crimes like vehicular manslaughter, or even murder.

Pocrass says the low percentage of drivers convicted of felonies perpetuates a culture in which fleeing the scene of a crash becomes routine behavior. In 2016, an NBC Los Angeles investigation suggested that as many as 50 percent of collisions in Los Angeles County are hit-and-run incidents.

“The system is out of whack,” Pocrass says. “There’s no teeth in any of our statutes to hold someone criminally responsible for what I think is a heinous and cowardly act.”

The severity of hit-and-run incidents appears to be on the rise. The number of people killed or severely injured in hit-and-run crashes increased each year between 2014 and 2017, before a modest 5 percent dip in 2018.

In 2014, 27 people died in hit-and-run crashes; last year, 54 people were killed.

The spike in deadly incidents appears to be part of a national trend. According to a 2018 report from AAA, a record-high number of people were killed in hit-and-run crashes across the country in 2016.

Those numbers can’t be divorced from overall traffic deaths, which are also increasing. According to the National Safety Council, the number of people killed on U.S. roadways eclipsed 40,000 for the third straight year in 2018.

In the city of Los Angeles, at least 240 people died in crashes last year. Hit-and-run collisions accounted for less than 25 percent of that total.

But incidents in which drivers flee the scene of a crash are considered especially severe because, in worst-case scenarios, the decision to leave can mean denying a victim potentially life-saving aid.

“When you hit somebody, it can be a matter of minutes,” says Jeri Dye Lynch, whose son, Conor Lynch, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2010. “That 911 call could be the only thing that saves that person’s life.”

For safe streets advocate Damian Kevitt, whose right leg was severed in a 2013 collision, a driver’s decision not to stop may have contributed to the severity of the crash. Kevitt, who was bicycling through Griffith Park at the time of the collision, was pinned beneath the vehicle and dragged as the driver attempted to leave the scene.

“The impact was minor,” he says. “It was the run that caused all the damage. It was the run that made me a victim.”

Police never found the driver that struck Kevitt.

“I can’t say I never think about it,” he says. “Can you imagine doing what he did to me and having to live with that for the rest of your life?”

Former California Assemblymember Mike Gatto says it’s not enough to let drivers live with the guilt of having hurt someone.

“That decision that a person who flees the scene makes—that’s premeditated,” he says. “To me, that’s ‘I left this person on the road like a dying animal.’”

In 2014, Gatto authored two bills that would have upped penalties for hit-and-run drivers and bolstered the ability of law enforcement to track down offenders. Both were passed by the state legislature but vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

A year later, Brown signed a rewritten version of one of the bills, allowing police to broadcast partial license plate numbers of suspects on freeway signs. Gatto says he doesn’t think it’s made much difference.

“My goal was not to stop accidents,” he says. “My goal was really to force people to stop, make sure someone was okay, and dial 911.”

Even criminal defense attorney Stephen Rodriguez, who frequently represents clients accused of hit-and-runs, says that current penalties aren’t enough to deter future violations.

“It’s probably one of the most common crimes in Los Angeles,” he says.

One reason drivers leave, Rodriguez says, is out of fear that they might be held accountable for actions leading up to the crash—such as distracted driving or driving under the influence.

Gatto says that’s a difficult problem to address from a legislative standpoint.

“How do you make sure there are penalties for people who get into a car plastered, but also incentivize them… to render aid?” he asks. “You can’t just create a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

That’s given a punitive tone to the efforts of state leaders to curb hit-and-run incidents.

“The only answer seems to be increasing the penalties or increasing the ability of law enforcement to catch [drivers],” Gatto says.

John Yi, director of Los Angeles Walks, suggests that the behavior of drivers after a crash may be a byproduct of the attention city leaders pay toward the needs of car owners over other road users.

“At the end of the day, the streets that we have create these environments and these systems where hit-and-runs are happening at high rates,” he says.

Kevitt agrees.

“Our streets are engineered for cars in Los Angeles,” he says. “They’re not engineered for pedestrians. They’re not engineered for cyclists. So if you’re not a car, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation mounted a rainbow-colored disc atop a street sign at the site of Conor Lynch’s death. It’s the first roadside monument installed by the city as part of a program that seeks to draw the attention of the public toward intersections where fatal crashes took place. The discs refract sunlight onto the pavement below, creating colorful halos in honor of victims.

Jeri Dye Lynch says that memorials like this are part of the arduous process of making drivers aware that the choices they make inside a vehicle can mean the difference between life and death.

“People are so focused on the legality issues” of driving, she says. “But it’s a bigger morality issue—we have a moral obligation to help.”