FORT WORTH (CBS11 I-TEAM) – Hit-and-run deaths are on the rise in North Texas despite efforts from state lawmakers to keep drivers from leaving the scene.
According to state crash records, hit-and-run deaths in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have increased 85 percent since 2012.
In 2013, Texas lawmakers passed a bill increasing the criminality of leaving the scene of a fatal accident from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony.
This move increased the maximum punishment for a fatal hit-and-run crash from five years to 20 years — the equivalent of being sentenced for intoxicated manslaughter.
The idea was by making the punishment for leaving the scene of a fatal crash the same as intoxicated manslaughter, drivers would have an incentive to stay and do the right thing.
However, the CBS11 I-Team found increasing the punishment has not kept more drivers for fleeing.
According to crash records, in 2012, the year before the tougher punishment went into effect, there were 27 hit-and-run fatalities in D-FW.
Last year, hit-and-run crashes in DFW killed 50 people.
Driver never stopped after killing seven-year-old Fort Worth girl riding her scooter
In March, Aja Hill, 7, was killed outside her home by a hit-and-run driver.
Hill was riding her scooter on a residential street, when a black Dodge Charger spending down Barron Lane hit and killed the young girl.
The driver never called 911, never checked on Hill and simply sped away.
“All they (drivers) think about are all their consequences,” said Hill’s mother, Tia Jackson. “When you think about that, that’s little. Think about a kid laying on the ground blood squeezing from their head. Think about me never being with my child ever in my life.”
Neighbors called 911 and paramedics rushed the Fort Worth first-grader to Cook Children’s Hospital.
Jackson said she’ll never forget being at the hospital and doctors telling her there was nothing they could do.
“It hurts so bad,” she said. “I shook her to wake up, but I knew she wasn’t going to wake up. I had to let her go.”
Fort Worth Police investigators said they have impounded the vehicle they believe struck Hill but the owner denies being involved in the crash.
Investigators are hoping DNA evidence collected from inside the vehicle will lead them to an arrest.
Parents advocated for tougher hit-and-run punishments
Few can even begin to understand Jackson’s pain, but Carol Thompson does.
Her daughter, Sarah, 24, was also killed in a hit-and-run crash.
In 2005, Sarah, a law student at St Mary’s University in San Antonio, was out with friends when the driver of a Jaguar sports car hit her as she tried to cross the street.
The driver took off.
“We got the call in the night – the one that every parent dreads,” Thompson said. “You don’t ever get over it.”
Witnesses and debris from the scene eventually led police to the driver, Jose Vara.
Vara was arrested for failure to stop and render aid and was sentenced to five years in prison, which at the time was the maximum sentence for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
“It was just unbelievable,” Thompson said about the sentence. “We were rewarding people who left the scene.”
Thompson said five years for killing her daughter then fleeing did not seem just, so along with other parents whose children were killed in hit-and-run accidents, Thompson lobbied state lawmakers for stiffer punishments for those who leave the scene of a crash.
In 2013, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 275, co-authored by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth). The measure increased the punishment for fatal hit-and-run crashes making it the same as the punishment for intoxicated manslaughter.
“It was a loophole in the law that needed to be fixed,” Thompson said.
(insert pic – caption: Sarah Thompson, 24)
Stiffer penalties have failed to keep more drivers from leaving scene
Along with closing the loophole, the harsher punishment was supposed to give drivers an incentive to remain at the scene. Lawmakers and advocates, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the new law would cut down on the number of hit and run crashes.
That has not happened.
In the last five years, the total number of all fatal crashes in D-FW went up by 27 percent, while the number of hit-and-run fatalities during the same time span went up 85 percent.
“I think we are somewhat disappointed because the statistics are not bearing it out,” said Dallas MADD Executive Director Ron Sylvan. “We are just not making the general public aware of the consequences of being in an accident and then fleeing the scene.”
Sylvan suggested a statewide public relations effort, similar to the Click-It Or Ticket campaign, could have an impact on driver behavior.
While advocates hope greater awareness of the legal consequences will reduce the number of drivers who leave the scene, Hill’s mother said the human consequences should be enough for drivers to stop.