States post yellow alerts to try to nab hit-and-run drivers
Debbie Geneau was on her way to the bank in Bakersfield, Calif., one afternoon in July 2020, when three cars headed in the opposite direction crashed. One hit the divider and went airborne, landing on top of Geneau’s Dodge Charger, killing the 65-year-old office manager.
The driver responsible for the chain-reaction crash fled the scene. It took nine months for police to figure out who she was and arrest her. She was charged with a hit-and-run resulting in death or permanent serious injury and with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.
“The biggest thing for me was that I wanted justice for my mom and some type of closure for my family,” said Geneau’s daughter, Dawn Elliott, of Edmond, Okla. “A lot of times they don’t find the people responsible for hit-and-run crashes, and that feeling of not knowing is a terrible one.”
Elliott hopes that a measure inspired by her mom’s case and signed into law by California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month will help make it easier for police to track down hit-and-run drivers.
The law, which goes into effect in January 2023, creates a Yellow Alert system for fatal hit-and-run crashes, similar to an Amber Alert for abducted children. If police can get a complete or partial license plate number and description of the vehicle, it can be flashed on highway message signs in the area and sent to the media to disseminate.
At least two other states — Colorado and Maryland — use similar alert systems for hit-and-run crashes.
California Republican Assembly Member Jim Patterson said he authored the bill, which passed unanimously, after hearing from Dawn Elliott about her mother’s story. He hopes it can help police locate hit-and-run drivers.
“This is just a recurring tragedy. One of the difficulties is when they flee, often it takes a long time to locate the individual — or they never do,” said Patterson, who lost a friend who was the victim of a hit-and-run while bicycling.
Hit-and-run crash fatalities have been climbing in the United States, jumping from 2,037 in 2019 to 2,564 in 2020, a 26% increase, according to the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Many of the victims aren't riding in cars and trucks. Twenty-four percent of all pedestrian fatalities in 2020 involved hit-and-run crashes, as did 22% of all bicyclist fatalities.
A data analysis by Florida officials found that fatalities from hit-and-runs in the state rose more than 18% in 2021 compared with 2020. Seventy percent of the fatalities involved pedestrians or bicyclists. And hit-and-runs that resulted in serious injuries grew 20% during that period.
“These are extremely difficult investigations,” said Ron Menchey, a Maryland State Police first sergeant. “We have collisions that we’d bet our paychecks that there were witnesses, but they don’t come forward. Sometimes, we come across a body on a roadway and no one stopped.”
Menchey, who heads a unit that investigates fatal hit-and-runs, said it’s also hard to identify the fleeing vehicle from a specific part it may have left at the scene, because some car companies use the same parts in different models. Some have no part number at all.
And even if investigators do find the car, he added, they have to prove who was driving it at the time of the crash.
Technology such as cellphones, vehicle dashcams, business surveillance video and DNA has helped police solve hit-and-run crimes, according to Menchey.
“But even those we do solve, we never get the real story,” he said. “We don’t know why they did it.”
Sometimes, it’s because a driver is impaired or has a license suspension, Menchey said, but a lot of it boils down human psychology.
“It’s people’s lack of caring,” he said. “It’s a fight or flight.”
Menchey said his unit has investigated 37 fatal hit-and-runs since 2020 that have occurred within the state police’s jurisdiction. Two-thirds have involved pedestrians.
The unit currently has about a 60% success rate in solving the crimes, which is “above the national curve,” he said.
In New York City, for example, where there were 47 fatal or near-fatal hit-and-run crashes in the first half of 2021, police made arrests in only 23% of cases, according to Gothamist, a local news website.
Maryland’s Yellow Alert system for hit-and-runs that result in serious injuries or fatalities, which went into effect in late 2015, can be used when there is enough descriptive information about the vehicle to help law enforcement. While state police issue the alerts based on requests from any police agency, Menchey said there have been only five activated so far and all have been from his own agency.
Federal data shows there have been 173 hit-and-run fatalities in Maryland between 2016 and 2020.
Menchey said it’s often hard to get enough description from witnesses quickly to post it on highway signs. The alerts last only 24 hours.
Menchey said the system still can be a useful tool, noting that it helped his investigators find a hit-and-run vehicle after a fatal crash in June on Interstate 95 in Cecil County.
Colorado has a similar program, called a “Medina Alert” — named after a young valet driver killed in a hit-and-run crash. Police can request the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to activate it if there is serious bodily injury or death and they have a complete or partial license plate number and the make, style and color of the vehicle or the identity of the suspect.
Medina Alerts have been posted on traffic message boards and blasted to media 45 times since the program started in 2015, according to Susan Medina (no relation), the bureau’s spokesperson. So far this year, it has been activated four times.
A 2018 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found a lack of information about the effectiveness of alerts and limited research on hit-and-run crashes overall. Researchers recommended looking at the prevalence of the alerts and the capture rate as well as how that compared to a time before the laws were established.
California’s new law requires that the state highway patrol track the number of Yellow Alert requests it gets from law enforcement agencies throughout the state and submit a report to the legislature by 2026 about the efficacy, advantages and disadvantages of the system.
“There’s a general consensus with the legislature that if we can mirror some of the success with the Amber Alert, this tool can be quite helpful,” Patterson, the measure’s author, said. “It isn’t a silver bullet, but it may make a difference.”
Patterson said the spike in fatal hit-and-runs in his state and across the nation may be tied to a growing recklessness on highways and a rise in impaired driving and road rage.
“Stay and take the consequences,” he said. “For goodness’ sake, call 911. Try to provide some aid. They don’t do that.”
Elliott, whose mother was killed in the Bakersfield crash, would like to see every state create a Yellow Alert system.
“It’s very important to get the description of the vehicle, make and model, license plate number immediately to people,” Elliott said. “The sooner it’s out, the better.”
On the first anniversary of her mother’s death, she launched a nonprofit called Helping Hit-and-Run Tragedies, or Helping HART, which advocates for resources for law enforcement and helps victims and their families who have been affected by a hit-and-run crash.
Adriana Jenson, of Pioneer, Calif., said she wished a Yellow Alert system was in place when her 40-year-old husband, Robert, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in June while crossing the street in a Sacramento suburb. So far, police haven’t found the driver.
“If a timely alert had been put out on digital signs, I believe we would have had a much better chance of finding out who killed my husband,” Jenson said. “It’s becoming an epidemic, and we need the public’s help in holding these people accountable. How many other families are being left without answers?”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.