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Hit-and-Run : Social, Cultural Factors Cited in Rise of Cases

September 21, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

George Edward Morary died on a late summer evening while crossing a La Habra street. The 25-year-old auto mechanic was walking a friend's dog back home when he was hit. "It was dusk. A witness said the driver had no lights on," said his father, George Frank Morary.

Afterwards, he said, "she took off."

Hit-and-run, a factor in 9% of accidents in California, has become more common this year, according to the California Highway Patrol. During the last five weeks alone, hit-and-run drivers in Orange County have killed six people, including Morary. Three more were seriously injured.

"There are more people driving, less room to drive, and everybody's still in the same rush to get there," said Michael Lundquist, a CHP spokesman in Santa Ana.

In urban areas like Orange County, where residents often don't know their neighbors, drivers may be less likely to feel the moral obligation to stop after an accident. "It happens more often in cities than in rural areas because of the anonymity," said Gilbert Geis, a UCI professor of social ecology. "It's no revelation that society's becoming more selfish all the time."

Geis, who has studied the opposite trend--the phenomenon of good Samaritanism, said there has never been much research into hit-and-run because of the belief that "there isn't anything you can do about it."

The state vehicle code requires any driver involved in any accident to remain at the scene. Further, the code requires drivers to lend assistance to anyone who is injured until medical personnel arrive. Beyond the penalty for whatever injuries they cause, judges can sentence drivers to up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine for fleeing the scene of an accident. Nevertheless, according to the CHP, last year California hit-and-run drivers left 388 people dead--most of them pedestrians. Some 27,006 were left injured.

According to Sgt. Tom Machado of the La Habra Police Department, hit-run drivers flee because of "pure panic" or because "they're blitzed out of their lid and don't know what they're doing." But most of them, he said, "know they're in deep trouble."

Other reasons are that the drivers have no license, no insurance, or fear higher insurance rates or being caught violating a drunk-driving parole, Lundquist said. Some say they were unaware that they had even been involved in an accident, he said.

"I can understand the impulse to get the hell out of there," UCI's Geis said. If the victim has died, "what's the point of staying and going to prison?

"Running away always aggravates what you've done, but it gives you the chance to not pay any price for it."

Most of those arrested for hit-and-run driving--whether injuries are involved or not--are men, according to the Bureau of Criminal Statistics. Of the 1,440 adults arrested statewide last year, 617 were Latino, 602 white and 162 black.

Santa Ana Police Capt. Paul Walters said the number of Latinos arrested may be disproportionately high because of their confusion over California law. In Mexico, he said, it is more common to flee the scene of an accident because all drivers involved are often taken into custody until the financial responsibility can be settled. Also, Walters said, some Latinos falsely believe that the state allows them to leave and contact an attorney.

Walters said several education programs through television, radio and Spanish newspapers are aimed at improving immigrants' knowledge of California laws.

Geis said that hit-and-run is an inadvertent crime and the first impulse is to make believe it didn't happen.

"It really spooks you. (They think) 'Ten minutes ago my life was simple. Now I'm a murderer. What can I do?' "

Although the "moral imperative" is to stop and help the victim, Geis noted that the Fifth Amendment protects people from incriminating themselves. "Why should (running away) be an offense at all? It's a fascinating constitutional issue," he said.

When police catch up with suspects in hit-and-run cases, many deny their involvement, Lundquist said.

"I get neat stories. They simply weren't driving, not involved. I say, 'Can you tell me who was driving?' They say, 'No, I just leave my keys here and there.' I look at them and see a visible injury to their face. They say, 'Well, I got in a fight that night.' But they can't tell me anything about the guy.

"Sometimes I tell them flat out, 'I know you're lying. If you want to come in and change your statement, fine.' "

In drunk-driving cases, offenders will sometimes turn themselves in, Lundquist said. They admit that they were drinking but claim that it was after the accident and that they only drove away because they were so upset.

In fact, 75% of hit-and-run cases do escape criminal charges because in most cases no one can identify the driver, Lundquist said.

However, authorities eventually trace 90% of the cars involved in hit-and-run accidents, he said, mainly through information from witnesses. The owners can then be held liable for damages in civil suits.

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