Approximately 11 percent of motor-vehicle accidents in this country are hit-and-runs. These accidents range from minimal-damage "fender benders" to multiple-fatality incidents. Denver police reported 18,662 hit-and-runs in that city over a three-year period, an average of 17 a day. In Los Angeles, almost one of every two drivers flees the scene after a motor-vehicle collision. On average, 13 pedestrians die in motor-vehicle-related accidents every day, with one in five of these victims killed by hit-and-run drivers.
While the number of unlicensed drivers in the U.S. is unknown, estimates run into the millions. The Automobile Association of America reports that among drivers who had the opportunity to flee an accident (those not injured or killed in the crash), unlicensed drivers were 9.4 times more likely to flee compared to drivers with valid licenses. A significant number of unlicensed drivers are in this country illegally. These individuals are motivated to flee an accident, fearing contact with police will result in their deportation. The large number of illegals in Los Angeles contributes to that city's extremely high percentage of hit-and-run accidents.
Arguably the main reason so many drivers flee an accident is they know the chances of escaping undetected are in their favor. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Katz states that when a suspect flees, he or she drives off with most of the evidence: "the badly dented car, their ID, and their blood alcohol content." Santa Monica traffic accident investigator Jason Olson notes that "you're just relying on the person or the person's family to come forward."
Crime in America: an occasional series on myths and realities
According to social scientists Sara Solnick and David Hemenway, the "hit-and-run driver is a mysterious figure." In an effort to understand who these individuals are, the circumstances of the incident and why they run, these researchers examined official data for all hit-and-run pedestrian fatalities, wherein the drivers were eventually identified, over a two-year period in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. Their findings include the following:
1. Drivers are more likely to leave the scene of an accident on weekends and at night then during the week and daylight hours.
2. Comparing hit-and-run drivers who were eventually identified with drivers who remained at the scene, the former are more likely to be male, young and driving a somewhat older car. An older vehicle may be indicative of lower socio-economic class.
3. The possibility of hit-and-run driving decreases with age, as individuals under 25 are more than three times as likely to flee a pedestrian fatality than those over age 65.
4. Men are much more likely to drink and drive than women, with males twice as likely as females to be hit-and-run drivers.
5. Drivers are less likely to flee an accident if the victim is under 11 years of age or over 65. Perhaps drivers feel more remorse for young and elderly victims.
6. Hit-and-run drivers who injure or kill victims under 11 and over age 65 years of age are more likely than drivers who injure or kill individuals between 12 and 65 years old to eventually be identified. Solnick and Hemenway speculate that law enforcement may expend more time and resources attempting to locate these drivers.
7. For the 20 percent of drivers tested, hit-and-run drivers are much more likely to have a positive blood alcohol content.
8. Motorists with previous DWI convictions or license suspensions are more likely to flee. This finding indicates the significance of alcohol in the decision to leave the scene of an accident.
Based on these findings, Solnick and Hemenway argue that a significant number of hit-and-run drivers are intoxicated at the time of the crash. They offer two theories attempting to explain why these individuals flee.
According to the rational decision theory, the determination to leave a motor-vehicle crash is a spur-of-the-moment one rather then a carefully planned, premeditated decision, and comes about via three thought processes:
1. Because so many drunk driving hit-and-runs occur at night, there are fewer witnesses in near or total darkness to get a license number. This lack of potential witnesses is a powerful incentive for intoxicated drivers to run.
2. Many hit-and-run drivers have been guilty of a previous driving-while-intoxicated offense and fear the consequences of another conviction. Drunk drivers are more likely to be at fault in the accident, yet another incentive to run.
3. Drinking may influence the reasoning process as numerous studies indicate that alcohol compromises moral judgement. A sober driver may be tempted to run but, upon reflection, is likely constrained from so doing by the social and legal proscriptions against fleeing an accident scene. The alcohol-impaired driver's perception of these prohibitions is diminished.
As opposed to alcohol being a factor in one's decision making, the personality theory suggests that certain personality characteristics lead to both drunk driving and reckless or criminal behavior, including fleeing the scene of an accident. Research indicates that highly aggressive individuals are poor at dealing with stress and frustration and tend to drive "particularly dangerously" after consuming alcohol. A Massachusetts study found that over half of DWI offenders in that state had previously been arraigned for criminal offenses other than DWI charges.
Earlier this year, both the New York state Senate and Assembly passed legislation known as "Vince's Law." The bill (awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature) states that individuals convicted of drunk driving three or more times over a 25-year period will be charged with a Class C felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The bill was named for Vincent Russo, an Onondaga County resident killed by a drunk driver who had a blood alcohol count four times the legal limit and was free while awaiting sentencing for his fifth DWI conviction.
While increasing penalties for offenders with multiple DWI convictions is certainly justified, this course of action is likely to result in unintended consequences. A drunk driver with two DWI convictions involved in an accident after drinking is even more likely to flee the scene fearing a third conviction will send him or her to prison. The passage of Vince's Law may somewhat decrease the number of individuals with previous DWI convictions from drunk driving. However, the number of drunk drivers with one, and especially two DWI convictions involved in an accident who flee will increase.
Hit-and-run accidents will also increase as more people (especially young, inexperienced drivers) are texting while driving. No doubt some of these individuals are texting while under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs.
P.S. Increasing the severity of punishment without increasing the certainty of punishment (in this case, more police officers spending more time looking for and arresting drunk drivers) will have a minimal impact on deterring the number of people with previous DWI convictions from driving while intoxicated. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010 there were 112 million "self-reported" episodes of alcohol-impaired driving with slightly more than 1.4 million leading to drunk-driving arrests.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. He is the co-author (with Steven E. Barkan) of "Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know," Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014.
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