Southern California has a problem with hit-and-run drivers.
How much of a problem? In just the last month, seven people have died in such collisions in the city of Los Angeles, and another five have lost their lives in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
Those numbers don’t take into account people who are injured and maimed by hit-and-run drivers, such as Damian Kevitt. Last February, Kevitt was struck by a driver while on his bike in Griffith Park, got hooked on the minivan, and dragged for more than 60 feet as the motorist sped off toward the I-5 on-ramp. He suffered numerous broken bones and one of his legs had to be amputated. He might have been killed if another motorist hadn’t used his vehicle to shield Kevitt’s body from oncoming traffic.
This spate of hit-and-runs may be dramatic, but it is far from unprecedented. Last December, LA Weekly ran a cover story called "L.A.’s Bloody Hit and Run Epidemic," in which writer Simone Wilson laid out the grim numbers: 20,000 hit-and-run crashes in the city each year, 4,000 of which resulted in injury or death. Even more telling than the raw numbers were the percentages, wrote Wilson: nationally, 11 percent of crashes are hit and run, while in Los Angeles, in 2009 it was 48 percent.
After the publication of Wilson’s article, state Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill, AB 184, that would lift the statute of limitations on hit-and-run offenses, currently a mere three years.
Gatto’s bill was amended, and the statute of limitations was doubled instead, from three to six years. It recently passed both the Assembly and Senate unanimously and now awaits the governor’s signature.
"AB 184 will allow victims of hit-and-runs and law enforcement to obtain justice from cowards who do everything possible to avoid responsibility for their actions," said Gatto in a press release. "Thousands of hit-and-run victims suffer life-threatening injuries annually. Allowing the perpetrators to avoid prosecution just adds insult to these injuries."
It is a small step forward, not just legally, but also in terms of signaling that the community at large recognizes that the hit-and-run epidemic is real.
If the governor signs the bill into law, the test will be to see how vigorously it is applied. Investigations by the LAPD into hit-and-run crimes are all too often lackluster, as Wilson’s reporting in LA Weekly showed. And if the police aren’t motivated to search out those who drive away from the scene of a crash, it doesn’t matter if the statute of limitations is 3 years, or 6, or 26.