DENVER — Stand along any part of Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver, and it won’t take long to see the interaction between people and cars.
This busy street is not only a major artery for Denver, it’s also a popular place for pedestrians who visit nearby businesses.
The street is also, unfortunately, no stranger to pedestrian accidents. On Wednesday, the Denver Police Department issued a Medina Alert for a 2011 Chevy Cruz that was involved in a hit-and-run near Franklin and Colfax.
However, Colfax is certainly not the only busy street where these crashes occur.
The challenge of hit and run crashes
From an investigative standpoint, hit-and-run crashes are some of the most difficult for police to solve.
“When we talk about homicides, people who are shot, people who are stabbed, quite often they are shot or stabbed by people they know, people they interact with. When we're talking about a hit-and-run crash like this, it's a stranger-on-stranger crime,” said Sgt. Mike Farr, the day shift supervisor for the Denver Police Traffic Investigations Unit.
With these investigations, the cars involved can look like thousands or even millions of others on the road. That’s why videos, pictures and witnesses can be key in these investigations.
Police will often turn to nearby surveillance video to spot the car. It’s the license plate number, though, that can play the most critical role in these investigations. Even a partial plate number can lead officers to the right car.
“Absent that, make observations as best you can about the driver. Can you tell if he's male or female? Dark complexion? Light complexion? Hat? What does the hat look like? A cowboy hat? A baseball hat? What other details you can give me about the car? A unique item hanging from the rearview mirror,” Farr said.
The challenge, though, is really two-fold. First, police need to find the car that was involved in the crash. Second, they need to figure out who was behind the wheel at the time.
“Just because I have somebody who is a registered owner of that vehicle does not allow me to bring charges against them, right? You have to be the operator, not the owner. That's the way the law is written,” Farr said.
For that, police will often turn to other evidence, like witness statements or even DNA within the car to try to figure out who was driving.
When police officers have a description of the car with the license plates, they will issue a Medina Alert asking the public to keep an eye out for the vehicle.
If they do not have the license plate number, they use CrimeStoppers ask the public to help with information, often in exchange for a reward.
Farr says he’s heard a lot of excuses over the years as to why drivers don’t stop to help the pedestrian they’ve hit. It’s everything from expired tags to intoxication to plain fear of getting into trouble. But he insists leaving the scene is a much more serious offense, and it’s never too late for drivers to do the right thing and turn themselves in.
“We take what could be a minor traffic ticket, or even maybe just a misdemeanor event as in a DUI, and we make it an automatic felony by leaving the scene of the crash,” Farr said.
His bottom line for drivers who hit a pedestrian and leave: the police are looking for you and will not stop until the case is resolved.
The current statute of limitations in Colorado for a hit-and-run crash resulting in death is 10 years, while it’s three to five years for a hit-and-run involving serious bodily injury.
As police work to solve several recent hit-and-run crashes in the Denver metro area, safe street advocates say infrastructure design is part of the problem.
Time to rethink design
As tragic as the recent pedestrian crashes are, Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, says these incidents are not surprising.
“We know it's because our streets are dangerous by design,” Locantore said. “The fundamental problem is we've been prioritizing cars and driving above everything else.”
For decades, Locantore says cities across Colorado have designed their streets in a way to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible from one point to another. The people outside of those cars are often the ones who suffer from the designs as a result.
With more cities focusing on transit, Locantore says now is the time to start seriously rethinking street design.
What does that look like? It could mean slower speeds, taking away some of the car lanes and instead dedicating them to bicycles or buses, constructing wider sidewalks and more.
“You need an actual complete connected network, which we have for cars but we don't really have for any other way of getting around. There's many places where the sidewalk ends or where the bikeway comes up to a major arterial, and there's no safe accommodations for the bicyclist to get from one side of the street to the other,” Locantore said.
Completing those networks so that vulnerable road users don’t have to interact with cars as frequently will help, according to pedestrian advocates.
Locantore does give the city of Denver credit for making some of these changes already, like adding more bike lanes and making improvements at some particularly dangerous intersections. However, she says there is a lot more work to be done, and a fundamental shift needs to happen in the state’s transportation system.
“We need to stop fantasizing that we're going to educate or enforce our way out of this traffic safety crisis and actually start designing streets for people,” Locantore said.
She doesn’t believe increasing criminal penalties on pedestrian crashes is the solution because she says it’s punishing people for using the roads the way they’ve been designed. Instead, she wants to see government leaders focusing their funding and designs on making vulnerable road users feel safe and encouraging more transit options so there are fewer cars on the road.
We want to hear from you. When was the last time you had a close call on the road here in Colorado? How did it happen and what did you do?
- How much do you think lack of enforcement plays into these close calls, versus distracted driving overall?
- What needs to change to make roads safer not just for other drivers, but for bicyclists and pedestrians as well?
- How has a close call changed your habits on the road?
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