Colorado uses innovative strategies to catch hit-and-run drivers

By Chris Spahr

As a result of disturbing hit-and-run statistics, Colorado will be the first state to use a notification system similar to Amber Alerts when serious hit-and-run crashes occur. There are an astounding number of hit-and-run crashes that lead to fatalities in the U.S. and the rate is increasing. Crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the number of fatal hit-and-run crashes increased 14 percent between 2009 and 2011. This figure is even more surprising when compared to the 4.5 percent decrease in overall traffic deaths, from 33,883 in 2009 to 32,367 in 2011.

Number of fatal hit and run crashes in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011

Number of fatal hit and run crashes in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011

Colorado ranks 10th in the U.S. for per-capita hit-and-run fatalities.  In Denver, police reported 18,662 hit-and-run crashes during the past three years, which averages to 17 per day. Between 2011 and 2013, approximately 1,300 people in Denver, Aurora, and Lakewood were injured or killed in hit-and-run accidents.

Studies have shown that drivers who flee the scene after they hit someone feel they have more to lose by staying on the scene. Sara Solnick, Chair of the Economics Department at University of Vermont, has studied this trend and says, “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 some states, disproportionate severities in penalties could cause intoxicated drivers involved in crashes to flee the scene. In Texas, for example, the maximum penalty for failing to render aid was half of the penalty for causing a drunken-driving crash death. However, the penalty for failing to render aid changed in September and is now punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The system that will be implemented statewide in Colorado next year will use the media and electronic highway signs to describe the offending vehicle. These notifications will be called “Medina Alerts”, after a former parking valet, Jose Medina, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident in Denver in 2011. After a car hit Medina, a taxi driver followed the vehicle, wrote down the license plate number, and alerted the authorities, who were able to locate the offending driver.

Citywide Medina Alerts already exist in Denver and Aurora, and during the two years that they have existed there have been 17 alerts that have resulted in 13 solved cases. Other parts of the country, such as Portland, OR, are hoping to create their own Medina Alert systems to reduce hit-and-run crashes.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.