News-Press, Sunday, June 29, 2014
Hit-and-run drivers can no longer slide
by Janine Zeiltan firstname.lastname@example.org
Ciro Crespo heard the Ford Focus' engine below him accelerate as he flipped from his bike onto its hood a Saturday morning in 2012.
The car had tried to pass the group of cyclists on two-lane Pennsylvania Avenue in Bonita Springs to be faced with an oncoming vehicle before swerving into Crespo, a fit and muscular 48-year-old.
Crespo tumbled to the pavement, anger and adrenaline numbing the throbbing pain as he watched the blue Ford drive away. The next day, the Lee County Sheriff's Office found the 72-year-old motorist at her Bonita Springs home.
"I did leave and I know I shouldn't have but I had an appointment and so I had to be somewhere," Catherine Turner told the deputy.
She pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident with injuries. She was never arrested, paid $960 in fines and court costs, and her license was suspended a year — flimsy punishments that still irritate Crespo, who faced months of recovery and $11,000 in uncovered medical bills and lost wages.
"They're condoning careless driving," said Crespo, also of Bonita.
Florida is closing a loophole that allowed hit-and-run drivers to get off easy. The state is a hot-spot for such crashes, Southwest Florida included. In 2012, Florida Highway Patrol investigated about 175 hit-and-run cases in Lee and Collier. Last year, the number hovered near 140.
Starting Tuesday, drivers who flee the scene will face stiffer penalties, including a three-year driver's license revocation for hit-and-runs involving injury or death and a mandatory four-year minimum prison term in the case of death. The new law is named for Aaron Cohen, a 36-year-old Miami cyclist and father of two young children who died in 2012 after a hit-and-run on a popular causeway for runners and riders stretching across Biscayne Bay.
"The more overreaching goal is to have it not happen again, or not happen as much and getting people to drive more safely," said Patty Cohen, the 37-year-old widow of Aaron Cohen. "One of the only ways to start changing the attitudes is to start changing the laws."
READ: SWFL cyclists face injury, death on dangerous roads
Pedestrians face continued mayhem on Lee, Florida roads
Aaron and Patty Cohen moved to Miami in 2006. He landed a job as a manager of a car dealership. The lifelong athlete gravitated toward triathlons, a natural fit for South Florida. He belonged to fitness groups and was riding about three days a week before he was killed.
A morning in February 2012, Cohen was with a riding partner when he was struck. The driver, Michele Traverso, waited 18 hours to turn himself in and there was evidence he had been drinking before the crash, according to media reports. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, rather than DUI manslaughter and sentenced to less than a year in jail. He would have faced a minimum of four years under a DUI manslaughter charge, lawyers said.
The disparity outraged Cohen and her friends, fellow cyclists, lawyers and advocates for safe driving who rallied to close the gap that encouraged drivers to flee, sober up and then turn themselves in. The punishment gap had for years puzzled traffic safety activists like Jay Anderson, executive director of Fort Myers-based Stay Alive…Just Drive!
"It was a slap-on-the-wrist thing even if you were convicted," Anderson said. "You murdered somebody and could get a $1,000 fine."
Eli Stiers, a Miami personal injury attorney and triathlete, worked with Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's office to draft the bill he sponsored. The bills passed unanimously in the House and Senate before the governor signed it earlier this week.
"In Florida, it's no longer acceptable to hit a pedestrian and cyclist and leave them for dead," said Stiers.
But at the root of the number of fatal crashes, Stiers and many other experts say, is the broad design of Florida's roadways. The state leads the nation in deadly hit-and-run accidents, he said. There were nearly 70,000 hit-and-run crashes in Florida in 2012, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
"It's going to take a long time to put our roads on a road diet," Stiers said. "In the meantime, we have to take a more reactive than a proactive stance."
For the first time in Florida law, the act also creates a special category for vulnerable road users, such as walkers, cyclists and motorcyclists, and enhances penalties for injuring or killing them in hit-and-runs.
Adopting a vulnerable user law has been a top recommendation for Florida in The League of American Bicyclists' annual rankings of bicycle-friendly states. In 2014, Florida ranked No. 28, but it is still the most lethal state for cyclists in the nation. The state improved on education, but lacked in infrastructure and laws.
"There has been a dark joke going around in Florida, if you murder someone in Florida, just make sure you drag them onto a bicycle because then you won't be charged," said Tim Bustos, executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association.
Bustos' group has been pushing for legal protections for vulnerable road users for years and hopes the designation will eventually stretch to other traffic laws.
"It will be much easier now that there is a precedence," he said.
Crespo, the Bonita cyclist in a hit-and-run two years ago, required surgery to repair his torn rotator cuff and couldn't work as an auto mechanic during his recovery. The experience made Crespo more wary. Apart from group rides, he often uses the sidewalk when he pedals to his job in Naples.
He's encountered too many careless drivers.
"We do have the right to the road, but it is crazy trying to use that right in competing with a hard car with your body," Crespo said.
He's happy motorists can no longer slip away with scant punishment.
"It's great news, though I think it's sad that people have to get injured and die for that to happen," he said of the law. "That should be common sense."
Hit and runs
Southwest Florida has counted hundreds of hit-and-run crashes in the past years.
• Last year, Collier County's farming town of Immokalee counted at least two pedestrian fatalities in hit-and-run cases, according to Florida Highway Patrol. Immokalee is a hub for migrant workers often traveling by foot or bike.
• In October, 41-year-old Frank Pizzurro hit and killed Juan Aranda near U.S. 41 and Page Field in Fort Myers, leaving him in the road to die, reports said. "The driver got out of the truck briefly after the crash then reentered the truck and continued to drive," witnesses told an officer.
Pizzurro later said he thought he hit a "dog or maybe a mountain cat," records show. He told police he had been at an Oktoberfest celebration earlier. Pizzurro has more than a dozen bad-driving cases in Lee stretching back to 2001 and remains in jail awaiting judgment.
• Two years ago, a driver fled after critically injuring a 16-year-old walking to her San Carlos Park bus stop. Later that evening, 21-year-old Chelsie Dahlbeck came forward as the driver. She told investigators she thought she had hit a trash can or pole and admitted to drinking before the crash. Dahlbeck pleaded to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was given a year probation and a $250 fine.