Florida has seen an increase of fatal hit-and-run crashes during the last two years. The Florida Highway Patrol is partnering with the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Department of Transportation to combat the problem. The campaign aims to reduce the number of hit-and-run crashes in Florida by educating drivers on their responsibilities if involved in a crash and the consequences they face if they leave a crash scene.
"Hit-and-run crashes are a growing problem in Florida," said FHP Director, Col. David Brierton. "Florida had nearly 70,000 hit-and-run crashes last year. We hope the education awareness campaign and our partnerships with Florida law enforcement agencies and FDOT will help us meet our mission goals of traffic safety."
The FHP office in Lake City had a press conference on Monday in response to the campaign. It was conducted by FHP's Public Affairs Officer, Sergeant Tracy Hisler-Pace. Also present and assisting Pace were Corporal Jason Berger, Lt. Mark Boatright and State Attorney of the Third Circuit, Jeff Siegmeister.
"This is a statewide campaign that's beginning (Monday)," said Pace. "The hit/run campaign is aiming to reduce the number of hit/run crashes in Florida."
Pace explained that a hit and run crash could be any number of things such as someone contacting law enforcement about waking up and finding their mailbox hit or destroyed. Pace said they might not have anything to go on in a minor case as that, but that FHP does investigate each one to the best of their ability.
"Mainly what we're focusing on is how bad it's getting with the injuries," said Pace. "And obviously going to the hospital and with the fatalities."
Pace said that the number of fatalities in Florida are becoming a growing problem. She said last year the law enforcement agencies combined in Florida worked nearly 70,000 hit and run traffic crashes. Nearly 17,000 people were injured and 168 people were killed.
"It was an increase from 2011 when we had 162 people killed in hit and run crashes," said Pace.
Pace said there are several different reasons why people might leave the scene of an accident.
"Sometimes they're just scared," said Pace. "They panic, they are possibly impaired."
She said other reasons might include a driver having a suspended license or no license. They might be fugitives wanted for another crime or they may not have car insurance.
"However, leaving the scene of a crash we know just heightens that problem," said Pace. "That's why our campaign is Hit and Run/Bad 2 Worse. Yes, it's bad to be in a crash, but once you leave, you've just heightened your issues."
The consequences of leaving a scene are quite severe.
"Involving death or injury, you obviously commit a felony," said Pace. "That carries with it a maximum term of 30 years in prison or a fine of $10,000 or both."
Pace said that leaving a scene involving property damage is a misdemeanor and can carry a maximum penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a fine up to $500 or both.
"They (Florida Legislature) changed the penalties several years ago, so that if you actually killed someone at the scene, you're better off than fleeing," added Siegmeister.
Pace said that in case you are involved in a crash, you should immediately stop. If you are obstructing traffic and can safely move your vehicle off to the side, then do so. Assist anyone who is injured. Call 911 immediately. Try to get any names, make, model and tags of any vehicles involved. If you have time and are able, even sketch out a simple drawing of what you witnessed.
"Do not accept claim settlements at the crash scene," said Pace. "Let law enforcement assist you through the process to avoid you getting taken advantage of."
Pace said try to remain calm and contact your insurance company as soon as possible.
She also said that as a driver it is your responsibility to remain at the crash not only to provide your information, but also to assist anyone who might have been injured in the crash.
If you are a witness to a hit and run crash, call law enforcement and try to give a detailed description of what you saw, the car or cars involved, color, make and possibly even a brief description of drivers. Pace said to get close enough for that, one should exercise caution.
"Obviously, you don't want to get too close or put yourself in a hazardous condition or situation," said Pace. "Then if you can give a description of any damage on the vehicle and direction of travel, that would be most helpful to law enforcement."
Suwannee County cold case
Pace then gave a brief description of some of the hit and run cases they've worked on namely one that happened in Suwannee County last year on Sept. 27. It involved the hit and run of a pedestrian, Steve W. Mathis on CR 137. It happened during the evening hours at approximately 9:35 p.m.
"Mr. Mathis had gotten one of his vehicles stuck on the shoulder of the roadway and called the tow truck," said Pace.
"The tow truck driver was parked in the southbound travel lane," said Berger.
Pace said that a northbound black vehicle came along and while passing the truck and Mathis, struck Mathis and continued northbound. Mathis died at the scene.
Pace then showed a picture of the vehicle that was recovered just the next day about four miles north of the crash scene. It had been abandoned and the tag was missing.
"FDLE (Florida Department Law Enforcement) seized a considerable amount of forensic evidence that is being processed in that case," said Berger. "There was a lot of physical and DNA-type evidence."
"They have some prints they put in their automated system because they didn't have a match," said Siegmeister. "And some DNA as well."
Pace wanted to encourage anyone that might recognize the vehicle or know something about the hit and run, to contact FHP immediately.
"That obviously is the most likely to be solved, the one where we have the vehicle," said Siegmeister. "We'd like to solve all of them, but the one that we know was driving is a matter of identifying who owned it at the time."
As the conference was being wrapped up, Boatright thanked all who were contributing to the new campaign to making it a success.
"We appreciate the press coverage we've had in the past," said Boatright. "We've been very successful on hit and run crashes especially when we've had fatalities or bodily injuries in this region. The media has helped us out a bunch."
Boatright said that whenever they get any information about a crash, they follow through to see if it leads to getting any closer to solving the case. He said that there are times they will do a 'follow up' and things don't pan out, but that it's imperative to keep at them and use every resource they have to solve it.
"Actually another tip came in about one of the cases," said Berger. "We'll have our crime analyst looking into it now to see if there's anything to go with before I confront people and interview other witnesses. Every once in awhile, another will come in, we'll sit on it again for whatever it takes to see if we can solve it."
Pace concluded saying sometimes solving the case is not only hopefully bringing about justice in a tragic situation, but for a family to get closure, to heal emotionally.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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