Hit-and-run epidemic engulfs Manatee County

rdymond@bradenton.comFebruary 18, 2014 

MANATEE -- About one in four Florida drivers have no auto insurance.

This could be due in part to the fact Florida has the fifth-highest auto insurance rates in the United States.

It could also be the cause for a runaway epidemic of drivers fleeing responsibility for traffic accidents they've been involved in.

The Florida Highway Patrol reported Monday there were 78,000 hit-and-run crashes last year in Florida -- including almost 800 in Manatee County -- involving people who left the scene of an accident causing injury or property damage. The crashes caused more than 17,000 injuries and 154 deaths, according to FHP.

Those statistics are predictable, said spokeswoman Lynne McChristian of the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

"They bolt when they have an accident because they are already breaking the law by not having insurance, and then they have caused an accident on top of it," McChristian said.

FHP is attempting to fight the soaring number of hit-and-runs statewide, which rose 8 percent last year from 72,000 in 2012, said Lt. Greg Bueno.

Using its new "Hit & Run, Bad 2 Worse," awareness campaign, FHP aims to reduce the number of hit-and-run traffic crashes by educating drivers about the consequences of leaving the scene of an accident, Bueno said.

The campaign theme is: "Bad: Getting into a traffic crash; Worse: Going to jail for not staying."

"What we want people to know is that driving is a privilege and one of the rules for that privilege is to be accountable for your actions," Bueno said.

The FHP spokesman said all drivers should be responsible and not drive under the influence, uninsured or unlicensed.

But leaving the scene of an accident is much worse than simply driving illegally, Bueno said.

"Driving and leaving the scene is a cowardly act," Bueno said.

Manatee County has been infected by this hit-and-run epidemic.

"In 2013, Manatee County had 776 hit-and-run crashes and 249 injuries," Bueno said. "Not all of those injuries required a trip to the hospital, but 155 were significant and 20 were serious."

The rising number of hit-and-run crashes are not just because of the uninsured, Bueno said. Others drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, with a suspended operator's license, while on probation or driving scared because of a combination of all the above, Bueno said.

"People say, 'I still have to go to work,' so they continue to drive," Bueno said. "Then, they panic and make a bad situation worse. By leaving they have committed a criminal act."

A person leaving the scene involving a death or injuries commits a first-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, a fine up to $10,000 or both.

A person leaving the scene involving property damage commits a second-degree misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of 60 days in a county jail, a fine of $500 or both.

FHP advises victims of a hit-and-run collision not to go after the perpetrators.

"We do not want motorists to chase down hit-and-run drivers," Bueno said. "We want them to be alert, get the license tag if they can, get a description of the driver, make a mental note of the color of the vehicle and the direction of travel. People should also immediately call 911 or star FHP, which is star 347, and give us a detailed report."

Many times, a hit-and-run driver will stop for a moment and then take off, he said. Bueno advises victims to play it cool if the suspect does stop, try to defuse the situation, explain it's an accident and they should both do the right thing.

"Try to mitigate the situation," Bueno said. "Don't get them enraged. Try to be calm."

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7045 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.

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