Hit-and-runs remain a problem in Minnesota

Tom WestThe first time I ever entered the business end of a funeral home I was in sixth grade. A boy, two years older, had been killed in a hit-and-run accident while walking with friends on the shoulder of a highway just outside of town.

The community was stunned by the accident, but law enforcement was unsuccessful in finding the culprit — until a year later when, overcome by guilt, a family member of the driver turned him in.

That memory came back to me last weekend when I learned that the mother of my son-in-law was sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver in St. Paul. She was uninjured, but her car had a few thousand dollars worth of damage.

And that got me to thinking again about the Amy Senser case that concluded with a sensational trial in the Twin Cities last month.

Jurors found Senser guilty of failing to call for help and of leaving the scene of an accident.

We may not know much about trillion dollar deficits or have a solution for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but, thanks to the huge amount of media coverage, every drunk on the end barstool was an expert on what Amy knew or should have done.

The plain truth is that Senser was treated unfairly by the media. The only reason she became a household name is because she is married to a former Minnesota Viking.

Joe Senser was a pretty good tight end for the Vikings a generation ago and that made him a celebrity. In Minnesota, once a celebrity, always a celebrity.

Had Joe Senser’s station in life never risen above convenience store clerk or even grain buyer for Cargill, no one would have even heard of Amy Senser today.

You doubt that? Do you want to dwell on the fact that a human being died on an I-94 exit ramp, and nobody stopped to help? Do you want  to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude and demand vengeance for Anousone Phantavong?

Well, here are some facts to help you get a grip on your emotions:

Each year, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety puts out a book called “Crash Facts.” This book takes all of the minute facts reported by law enforcement in its accident reports and tries to identify the trends hidden therein.

Because of the accident involving my extended family, following closely on the Senser trial, I began wondering how big a problem hit-and-run accidents are in this state.

It turns out they are a problem, but not quite as big a problem as they were a few years ago.

Unfortunately, “Crash Facts” doesn’t go back far enough to determine if hit-and-runs are one more factor proving this generation is going to hell in a handbasket.

On line, “Crash Facts” goes back to 2004, and the most recent edition is for 2010. In those seven years, 78 people in this state were killed by hit-and-run drivers. Exactly half of them, 39, were pedestrians.

Even more disturbing is that 9,615 hit-and-run accidents involving injuries happened during those seven years — 3.76 per day.

Even assuming that some of the perpetrators were multiple offenders, it seems reasonable to think that 9,000 people are on the roadways with the rest of us who were in accidents serious enough to injure someone and didn’t care enough to stop.

And if the Senser hit-and-run seems unique, the fact is that over those same seven years, 51,420 hit-and-run accidents occurred altogether — more than 20 every day in this state.

In spite of all that, there is some better news happening on Minnesota’s roads. I wouldn’t call it “good” news, but it is “better” that in 2010, 411 people died on state roads, the lowest total since 1944. “Crash Facts” also reports that seat belt compliance reached a record-high 92 percent, and that the 131 alcohol-related deaths was a record low. This may be small solace to the victims and their families, but at least we are headed in a better direction.

The same is true of hit-and-run accidents. Following is a table that lists the total number of fatalities, injuries and crashes involving hit-and-run drivers in Minnesota by year.

Year    Fatalities    Injuries    Crashes
2004         8              2,028         8,043
2005       14             1,987          8,506
2006       13             1,946          7,590
2007       12             1,796          7.786
2008       13             1,546          6,739
2009        8              1,537          6,404
2010       10             1,479          6,352

As you can see, in 2010, the number of injuries and crashes involving hit-and-run drivers reached a seven-year low. Again, that’s a better trend, but the fact remains that of the 74,073 traffic accidents in 2010, 8.6 percent involved hit-and-runs.

Were they driving without insurance; were they impaired by alcohol or drugs; did they not know that they hit someone (as Amy Senser claimed)? Or were they simply cold,
sober and totally irresponsible?

The experts on the end stool will have differing opinions on that. However, there is one thing on which everyone should agree — hit-and-runs remain far too prevalent in Minnesota.

If any good comes from the Amy Senser case, may it be that it focuses attention on what remains a serious problem. Get the perpetrators’ license numbers if you can. Get law enforcement to alert the public each time such an accident occurs, no matter how small. Prosecute vigorously.

Accidents happen — but take responsibility for your actions.

Tom West is the general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at [email protected]