Monday, December 1, 2014

What kind of driver doesn't stop after hitting someone?

Thanks to News-Press' "Share the Road Florida" campaign and great reporting by Janine Zeitlin, which is shining a spotlight on bike/ped safety issues in SWFL.  Today's front page feature article focuses on the alarming number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or injured by hit-and-run drivers.  With the stiffer penalties enacted by the Florida Legislature last year, it's time for "zero tolerance" for drivers who leave the scene of any crash.

There's a gap of time, 40 minutes to be exact, that haunts Misty Snyder.

It's the time between her older brother, Todd Snyder, was hit Nov. 7 while riding home to Lehigh Acres on her old Trek bike and the time he was pronounced dead. Because there were no witnesses, she doesn't know if it was an SUV, a truck or a sedan.

She does know the driver left her brother — the architect of family water balloon fights, the father of two sons and the snook fisherman — to die alone on the road.

Snyder went into cardiac arrest after the crash around 11:10 p.m., she said. Emergency responders tried to keep the 45-year-old alive. His time of death: 11:50 p.m.

"The thought that it wasn't instantaneous," said Snyder, who is 33. "It could have clearly been a mistake, but how could someone be that cruel or that disconnected of a human to not check on the person? It just seems unfathomable to someone who is normal."

In the past two years, Florida Highway Patrol has investigated about two dozen hit-and-run crashes involving bicyclists and walkers in Lee and Collier counties. The total figure is higher because that doesn't include data from other agencies. In all but four cases, someone was injured. Five people died, and about 70 percent of the crashes occurred in darkness.

Despite a new law that increased penalties for hit-and-runs, drivers continue to flee. November was a lethal month for cyclists and walkers in hit-and-run crashes. Two days after Snyder was struck on Sunshine Boulevard, 25-year-old Crystal Olvera was killed while walking in Winn-Dixie parking lot in Immokalee. Three days later, in Port Charlotte, a 32-year-old woman was seriously injured crossing U.S. 41. Those cases remain unsolved. On Nov. 21, a Naples driver reportedly spat and cursed at a cyclist after running him over, but before leaving him on the road with multiple fractures. Investigators are seeking her arrest.

Police have theories on the kind of driver who doesn't stop after hitting a person.

"It could be the status of their license, fear, or they're somewhere where they shouldn't be. It could be money," said Lt. Greg Bueno, of Florida Highway Patrol. "At the end of the day they're making a bad situation worse. You're subjecting yourself to be charged criminally."

His agency runs an annual hit-and-run campaign, but safety advocates are calling for more.

"This is the kind of problem that is really only resolved by enforcement," said Darla Letourneau of BikeWalkLee. "They have the tools now and there needs to be a campaign to use those tools to the max."

There is a bright spot from November: Two Lee County drivers who fled after killing walkers have been convicted. There have been arrests in three out of five fatal hit-and-runs of pedestrians in the past two years, according to the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

A Lee County judge sentenced Jacqueline Hogan to four months in jail as a youthful offender.

The 20-year-old was arrested in early August, two days after plowing an Oldsmobile into 68-year-old Thomas DeSoto near Fowler and Simpson streets in Fort Myers. After lying to investigators, Hogan broke into tears and said she "freaked out" after hitting DeSoto. Her boyfriend told officers DeSoto "came out of nowhere" and he feared they'd be arrested for murder if they stopped.

Hogan's license was suspended, records show, and she was ordered to be evaluated for substance abuse. The punishment pales to the crime, said Jay Anderson, executive director of Fort Myers-based Stay Alive … Just Drive.

"To me, she got away with murder. To only give her a four-month sentence sends the wrong message to anyone out there," he said. "If you make a mistake that claims someone's life, we need to hold someone responsible."

Under the new law, a fatal hit-and-run conviction draws at least a three-year license revocation and a mandatory four-year prison term, the latter of which Hogan escaped under youthful offender sentencing guidelines.

Frank Pizzurro, 42, will be sentenced next month. He faces up to 30 years in prison after being convicted by a jury this month of leaving Juan Aranda, a 61-year-old grandfather, for dead, after hitting him in October 2013 on U.S. 41 in Fort Myers. Aranda's shoes were knocked off. Pizzurro initially told an officer he thought he hit a dog or mountain cat and kept going. Witnesses heard a scream. They reported a driver get out of a pickup after the crash before continuing onward.

Pizzurro's license had been reinstated just two months before the crime. His license had been revoked five years for being a habitual traffic offender. His driving record counts more than 20 violations, many of which endangered others.

Officials say driving is so ingrained into our culture that it's viewed as a right rather than a privilege.
"In general terms, if an individual has had his or her license revoked and meets the requirements as prescribed by statute for having that license reinstated, the department must abide by the law," said John Lucas, Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesman.

Whether Pizzurro will drive again is up to the judge, Lucas said. It takes offenses like a fourth DUI conviction or DUI manslaughter to pull someone's license permanently.

On Nov. 16, Todd Snyder's family, including his 17- and 20-year-old sons, came together for his funeral, then placed a white memorial bike where he was killed. Along with sister, Misty, Todd had three brothers. With the extended family gone, Todd's 65-year-old mother, Barbara, has more time to think.

That's not a good thing. Todd lived with her in Lehigh Acres after returning from California, where he had worked as a cowboy. She received that 3:30 a.m. call telling her of an emergency. She waited 10 tense minutes in her robe, body trembling, before a stranger arrived to inform her that her son was gone.

She doesn't know if a light on his bike would have saved him. She doesn't think cyclists realize how hard it can be to see them.

"People on Sunshine Boulevard travel so fast and drivers aren't that careful either," she said. "They don't have bicycles on their mind."

She's not hopeful they'll find the driver. The only description of the car, possibly light in color or red, could be almost every other vehicle in Southwest Florida.

"I don't know," she sighed. "I think they'll just move onto the next case."

Connect with this reporter: @Janinezeitlin (Twitter).

Earlier News-Press stories on topic:

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