Hard to solve, hit-and-run crashes on the rise

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Russ Colecchio has no memory of the impact that tossed him “30 feet in the air and all the way to the other corner of the street.”  

He only knows what Kent County sheriff’s investigators told him. They learned about it from the evidence at the scene and from video from a nearby surveillance camera that shows the whole thing: the car slammed into Colecchio and his bicycle without slowing and disappeared into the night.

Colecchio said he may have been lying along S. Division Avenue near 60th Street for 45 minutes before a man walking by found him, thought he was dead and called for help. 

He spent a week in the hospital and more than a month in rehab. His shoulders, back and legs were all injured. He rolled up his pant leg and ran his fingers along ridges to show Target 8 the damage.

“These are all nails, all of them. There are 51 nails in this side from there to there and from here to there,” he said.

He still has trouble walking.

On that night in November 2017, Colecchio joined a growing number of hit-and-run victims.

Target 8 investigators dug into Michigan’s crash database and found that the more than 34,000 hit-and-runs in 2017 equates to a 25 percent increase since 2010. There was an 18 percent increase in injury hit-and-runs and 40 percent increase in hit-and-run deaths during that time in Michigan.

The numbers for the city of Grand Rapids show a 48 percent increase in the total number of hit-and-runs from 2010 to 2017, according to the Michigan crash database. There were two hit-and-run deaths during that time, and a 25 percent increase in hit-and-runs with injuries.

The approximately 2,000 hit-and-runs in the city account for nearly a quarter of all crashes.

It’s a national trend. Last year, AAA published the findings of a nationwide study that found hit-and-run deaths at a record high. 

The more than 2,000 deadly hit-and-run across America in 2016 is a 60 percent increase since 2009. 

Jake Nelson runs AAA’s national research and safety advocacy efforts from Ann Arbor and told Target 8 that “no one really knows exactly what the true cause for the jump in the number of hit and run fatalities might be.”

There isn’t a clear reason why drivers are hitting and running more, and that’s echoed by the lack of clarity about what triggers some to run while others don’t.   

“No one knows, and part of the reason why you don’t know is we rarely have access to the drivers involved in these crashes,” Nelson said. “Once they leave the scene, most of these cases go unsolved.”  

In reading the reports posted in the state database for the 181 hit-and-run injury crashes in Grand Rapids in 2017, Target 8 investigators found drivers who were drunk, didn’t have a license or insurance and in at least one case, a driver who crashed a stolen car. 

Kent County Sheriff’s Department crash investigator Sgt. Corey Luce says “very few people would flee a scene to avoid a ticket, so usually there’s something else behind it.”  

Luce said sees it as a character issue. 

“This type of thinking where, ‘Let me see if I can get away with it,’ applies to all kinds of criminal behavior,” he said. “They take off, thinking they’re not going to get caught, and a lot of times, they are right.”

But AAA found that “the scientific literature on hit-and-run crashes is sparse, with only a few major works written over the last 30 years.” 

Hit-and-run research is difficult. The only hit-and-run drivers researchers can talk to are those who get caught, and most people who run get away with it.

Grand Rapids police gave Target 8 numbers showing they have enough of a description to even begin an investigation in only about 14 percent of hit-and-run cases.

Hit-and-runs happen quickly. Stunned, hurt victims and witnesses, if there are any, have too little time to react and may be able to only glimpse the fast-fading taillights of the escaping car in most cases. One man who was hit on his bicycle said he was too busy flying through the air to get the license number. 

Police resources also play a role.

“When it comes to property damage crashes or a very minor injury crash, we’re not going to be able to put that kind of resource into it,” Sgt. Luce said.  

That’s not the case with serious injury or fatal hit-and-runs. Investigators tend to treat them much as they would a murder case with intense evidence collection, lab work and a flood of investigators if they need them. 

“Typically, I only investigate the serious injury to fatal crashes of which we do pretty good on prosecution,” he said.     

Russ Colecchio is happy with police efforts to find the driver who hit him. 

“Oh, the police were good. The police were excellent,” he said.  

Colecchio said detectives visited him three times in the hospital, hoping he could remember something about the car that hit him.  

Sgt. Luce said whoever did hit Colecchio knows he or she hit someone and still drove away. That driver left Colecchio bleeding and unconscious in the street.

Even though investigators have video of the crash, they’ve been unable to find the driver of the 1999 to 2005 Pontiac Grand Am.

But even after more than a year, they haven’t given up. They’re still hoping somebody who knows something will do the right thing and call the Kent County Sheriff’s Department at 616.632.6100 or Silent Observer at 616.774.2345 (or toll-free at 866.774.2345).

Anyone with information can also email Sgt. Corey Luce at corey.luce@kentcountymi.gov

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