Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Get tough on hit-and-run drivers


OUR OPINION: Mayhem on Florida roadways unacceptable

From the Best-Idea-We’ve-Heard-This-Week Dept.: A proposal in the Legislature to crack down on hit-and-run drivers in Florida. The mayhem caused by reckless and uncaring motorists on the state’s highways and streets makes a compelling case for action by lawmakers.

Hit-and-run statistics plainly show that this form of vehicular wrongdoing has become distressingly common in the Sunshine State. It results in an average fatality rate of more than three deaths per week, according to figures compiled by the Florida Highway Patrol. In 2012, hit-and-run crashes totaled 69,994, leaving 168 fatalities.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who’s sponsoring legislation (SB102) to change the law, calls the hit-and-run syndrome a “growing epidemic.” In some cases, advocates for reform say, prevailing statutes unwittingly encourage drivers to leave the scene of an accident instead of calling for help and staying behind to give aid to injured motorists.

Under Florida law, drunk drivers who kill someone receive a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison. But leaving the scene to avoid being caught carries lighter penalties. That’s an open invitation to flee.

The bill by Sen. Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, creates a minimum mandatory sentence of four years for leaving the scene of an accident that results in death, increases the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury and raises the level of punishment when a cyclist, motorcyclist or pedestrian is injured or killed — among other things.

It was inspired in part by the drive and determination of the widow and friends of a Miami cyclist killed in a hit-and-run crash on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The victim, Aaron Cohen, was struck and killed by a motorist on Feb. 15, 2012, while crossing the William Powell Bridge.

Driver Michele Traverso never stopped or called 911 and immediately fled the scene, according to Mr. Cohen’s widow, Patty. “He kept driving.” Traverso, who was on probation for cocaine charges, turned himself in 17 hours later. Police reportedly found evidence that he had been drinking but could not test him because of the time lapse. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail and released after serving 264.

In South Florida, hit-and-run drivers are an equal threat to cyclists like Mr. Cohen, pedestrians and motorists:

• They kill the young, like 12-year-old Shania Miracle Jackson, who was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver as she crossed a street in Hallandale Beach last November.

• They kill older Floridians, like 60-year-old Jorge Arrojas, who died after his car was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver on I-75 just outside Hialeah last August.

• They kill motorcyclists like Kevin E. Gilliam Jr., 29, who died after he was hit by a motorist who failed to yield right of way one Sunday afternoon last November in Fort Lauderdale.

Then there was the hit-and-run death of Miami Beach chef Stefano Riccioletti as he walked to work in January of last year, as well as the horrific hit-and-run crash in Hialeah last July that killed one man and severely injured another as the car plowed into a sidewalk bus bench. And many, many more.

Sen. Diaz de la Portilla’s bill, which aims to discourage hit-and-run accidents, has the support of Attorney General Pam Bondi, who called it “much needed legislation.”

Lawmakers should get behind the bill and help end the mayhem.

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