One Piece Missing from the Hit-and-Run Puzzle: Prevention | Voice of San Diego

Hit and Runs

One Piece Missing from the Hit-and-Run Puzzle: Prevention

“There’s not a whole lot we can do as a law enforcement agency to go out and stop hit-and-runs from happening,” said an official from San Diego Police Department’s Traffic Division. Stats fluctuate with no discernable trends, he said.

There are certain details that Rudy Delgado remembers, whether they’re backed up by official reports, which help him cope with the death of his friend and roommate, Aaron Voorheis.

He remembers that Voorheis pushed Delgado’s chihuahua, Minnie, out of the way the moment before the car struck him and drove away. Delgado remembers that Minnie, who was still leashed to Voorheis’ arm, nipped and tried to protect his friend from first responders who arrived to render aid.

And Delgado hangs onto the notion that Voorheis didn’t suffer, that he died immediately after the truck struck him, fracturing his skull.

But there too are details that sting. That two people rode in the car that killed him, neither of whom stopped or has since been found.

Every 30 days since February, Delgado marches down to the corner of Vermont and University near the place his friend was killed, holding a sign and demanding justice.

There he pleads with passers-by: “If you know something, come forward.” From his spot on the corner, he imagines the driver at home working on his truck, or having a barbecue, laughing.

When we talk about hit-and-runs, we talk about solving the crimes – not preventing them.

Prevention might include stepping up DUI checkpoints – alcohol is a leading factor contributing to hit-and-run deaths – or making sidewalks and intersections more walkable.

A 2014 pedestrian safety study conducted by the city shows pedestrian collision hotspots are areas like downtown, City Heights or uptown neighborhoods like Hillcrest – where Voorheis was killed.

In those neighborhoods, population density and lack of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks mean more people are struck by cars.

But hit-and-runs are a different animal, one that San Diego police primarily react to instead of protect against.

“There’s not a whole lot we can do as a law enforcement agency to go out and stop hit-and-runs from happening,” said an official from San Diego Police Department’s Traffic Division. Stats fluctuate with no discernable trends, he said.

But take a broader view of the numbers, and patterns emerge. Analysts at the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley looked at national crash data from 1998 to 2007 and found that 18 percent of the 48,000 pedestrian fatalities those years came from hit-and-runs.

More disturbing is that while the number of pedestrian fatalities decreased over that time, the proportion of hit-and-run fatalities rose.

The challenges police departments face in solving hit-and-runs shed light on nature of the crime.

For example, most happen at late at night and on the weekends. Drivers are more likely to flee if they see a chance to escape unseen, but this also means there are fewer potential witnesses to offer tips.

That might help explain why less than 50 percent of drivers responsible for the 48,000 hit-and-run fatalities were found. And why San Diego Police have solved only one of the six fatal hit-and-runs it’s seen this year.

A few things are known about the drivers who were found, however: They were more likely to have been drinking or driving unlicensed, for example. They were more likely to be under the age of 25, male, with previous traffic violations or prior DUI convictions.

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Delgado met Voorheis – who friends called Kurtis – 15 years ago.

They occasionally walked past each other in the neighborhood and one day struck a conversation. They became friends and soon moved in together. They didn’t have a romantic relationship, but they cared for each other like family.

Together they made money detailing houses, sometimes going hours without speaking, working methodically, rhythmically, until the job was done. “It always looked right,” said Delgado.

On Feb. 23, the night the Voorheis died, Delgado checked into the hospital for a routine operation.

From his hospital bed, he says he caught a glimpse of a breaking news report that said someone in the neighborhood had been hit and killed. He didn’t think about it long. Sedated for the coming operation, he faded into sleep.

In the morning, another news report. This time he saw his dog in a cage by the side of the road. An unidentified man had been killed, the reporter said.

He went to the nurse’s station and told them he needed to leave. “I knew that if I made it home and Kurtis was there, everything would be OK.”

When Delgado got home all the lights were on and the house was empty.

♦♦♦

States like Texas and Colorado have responded to hit-and-runs by stiffening penalties for drivers who are caught.

In 2012, Arizona enacted a law that means drivers who leave the scene after injuring a victim lose their licenses for five years. If the victim dies, they can’t drive for 10 years. That penalty doesn’t include jail time.

The gut reaction to hit-and-runs is to up the punishment. If a driver were to be tempted to drive away after hitting a pedestrian, the looming punishment would give reason to reconsider.

But researchers say the evidence doesn’t support that assumption.

Offer Grembek, a research director at UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, said the idea that crime will be deterred by fear of punishment hinges on the belief that a crime will be met with certain, severe and swift consequences.

One problem, Grembek said, is that the general public doesn’t understand or consider the punishment for hit-and-runs because few public information campaigns illuminate the consequences of the crime.

Furthermore, there’s no association between states with the harshest penalties for hit-and-runs and the frequency with which they happen, Grembek said.

In California, for example, the maximum punishment for a driver who kills a pedestrian and drives away is 11 years in prison. In Florida, another leader in hit-and-runs, the maximum penalty is 30 years. The national average is about eight and half years.

And simply because serious prison time is an option doesn’t mean that sentence will be imposed. Former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst told VOSD the average sentence countywide is six months to a year in jail, with subsequent probation.

And a search of local news archives shows that drivers often escape even that. Lisa Hutchinson drove away after she hit and killed 18-year-old Steven Kelley in 2010, and was sentenced to probation and community service.

Weeks earlier, a 92-year-old man killed 15-year-old Lucas Giaconelli, launching the victim onto the hood of the car. The man told police he assumed he’d hit an owl and prosecutors declined to charge him.

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) recently introduced a bill that would create a statewide emergency alert system to notify the public soon after a hit-and-run driver injured or killed a victim. The hope is to identify drivers before they have a chance to escape or cover evidence.

He says that Denver created a similar system in 2012 and has since solved 76 percent of its cases.

♦♦♦

In the apartment where Delgado lived with Voorheis, photo albums and a pile of boxes, stacked in the corner, is all that’s left of the dead man.

Friends and family members of hit-and-run victims uniformly search for a sense of closure, yet struggle to define what that looks like.

Rebecca Moore, a San Diego State professor of religious studies and an expert on death and dying, said that people who’ve lost loved ones in sudden tragedies are looking for a way to make sense out of the random violence.

“Death is a mystery,” she said, “and not knowing the facts contributes to the grief itself. So it’s quest for truth and justice – both in the legal sense, and in a divine sense. On the other hand, we will never have all the answers. At what point do we accept that we don’t have all the answers but find a way live with that ambiguity?”

But back in his apartment, Delgado is alone with his questions.

“I have to move out of here,” he says, scanning the room. “I’m not going to lose him as a friend. But I’m getting lost here. Trying to find justice for Kurtis keeps me going. But it also keeps me stuck.”

For now, Delgado is waiting. He’s waiting for the police to call and tell him they’ve caught the driver. He’s hoping that Voorheis will visit him soon in a dream, as the dead sometimes do, and tell him goodbye.

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