Hit-and-Run Fatalities Reach Record High in U.S.

 Joseph P. Williams

HIT-AND-RUN TRAFFIC fatalities in the U.S. have reached a record level, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

In a report released Thursday, the foundation said 2,049 people were killed in hit-and-runs in 2016 – a 60 percent increase since 2009 and the highest number ever recorded.

With an average increase in hit-and-run deaths of 7.2 percent each year since then, there's also no sign the trend will reverse anytime soon.

"Hit-and-run crashes in the United States are trending in the wrong direction," Dr. David Yang, executive director of the foundation – a nonprofit established by the broader AAA organization in 1947 – said in a statement. "Our analysis shows that hit-and-run crashes are a growing traffic safety challenge and the AAA Foundation would like to work with all stakeholders to help curtail this problem."

Hit-and-run fatalities are especially prevalent in the nation's Sun Belt: New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida are the per-capita leaders, according to the AAA analysis. By contrast, according to the report, rates have been lowest in the Frost Belt states of Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire.

Defined as collisions "in which at least one person involved in a crash flees the scene before offering any (or sufficient) information or aid to the other involved person(s) or fails to properly report the crash," the AAA report notes that, besides being a deadly threat, hit-and-run crashes can have other severe ripple effects.

The problem "contribute[s] to the suffering and social and economic burdens typical of injury crashes but also can increase the severity of outcomes given delays in or the complete absence of medical attention for the victims," the report says. "Moreover, hit-and-run violations – which are criminal offenses – can create additional burdens for law enforcement and for families looking for remediation and medical and insurance support."

Most victims of fatal hit-and-run crashes are pedestrians, according to the report, and fleeing drivers accounted for around 20 percent of all pedestrian crash fatalities in 2016.

While factors such as lighting and location play into hit-and-run crashes, the report notes other research has found drivers were 4.4 times more likely to flee after hitting a pedestrian between midnight and 4 a.m., in comparison with crashes between 8 a.m. and 11:59 a.m. And while lower visibility is a likely factor, "nighttime drivers may be involved in more risky behaviors such as driving while intoxicated or without a license, which may in turn make them more likely to decide to flee the scene of a crash," the report says.

The report notes that "the standard approach to countering hit-and-run offenses is to create laws that punish the driver," and says prior research has shown harsher sentencing guidelines in connection with hit-and-run pedestrian fatalities "do not appear to have a deterrent effect."

The analysis also highlights an effort in Colorado aimed at tracking down drivers who flee the scene of a crash. An Amber Alert-type of notification can be broadcast through the state's Medina Alert Program in the event of a serious hit-and-run incident, with information that can help the public identify the fleeing driver.

Such "programs focus on increasing the likelihood that a driver involved in a hit-and-run crash will be captured," the AAA report states. "Further research is necessary in order to determine if this will decrease the rate of hit-and-run crashes."

AAA officials are urging drivers to remain on the scene if a crash occurs.

"It is every driver's legal and moral responsibility to take necessary precautions to avoid hitting a pedestrian, bicyclist or another vehicle," said Jennifer Ryan, director of state relations for AAA. "While no one likes being involved in a crash, leaving the scene will significantly increase the penalties for drivers – whether they caused the crash or not."

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