2014: A deadly year for Colorado hit-and-runs

9Wants To Know investigates deadly hit-and-runs in the metro area and discovers there were 1.3 injuries daily in 2014.

KUSA – Colorado will see more hit-and-run deaths in 2014 when compared with 2013, according to data gathered by 9Wants to Know and I-News with Rocky Mountain PBS.

As of Dec. 10, 22 people have been killed by hit-and-run drivers in 2014. In 2013, 18 people died as a result of hit-and-run drivers.

In addition, the Denver metro area appears to also be experiencing a slight jump in injuries related to hit-and-run drivers.

INTERACTIVE PAGE: #JustStopCO project

According to preliminary data collected by I-News and 9NEWS, the three largest Denver metropolitan cities have experienced 446 injury hit-and-runs during the first 11 months of the year. That equals 1.3 injuries a day in Lakewood, Aurora and Denver.

Between 2011 and 2013, the data shows an average of 1.2 injuries a day.

It's unclear what might be causing the jump, but it's important to note the Colorado Department of Transportation reports more than half of 2014's fatal hit-and-runs have been alcohol related.

Federal Boulevard

Denver's most dangerous road

As of mid-December, Denver Police have reported 306 hit-and-runs on Federal Boulevard alone. While most were minor, 32 people were injured by hit-and-run drivers on Federal Boulevard which equates to more than two injuries monthly.

It makes the street the most dangerous for hit-and-runs in the City and County of Denver.

By comparison, Colfax Avenue has seen 25 hit-and-run injuries since the start of 2014 in Denver.

The March death of Reid Huffman, 19, highlights some of the problems associated with Federal Boulevard. The Americorps member was hit by two cars as he attempted to cross South Federal Boulevard from the east right in front of the Americorps campus just north of West Dartmouth Avenue.

The first driver who hit Huffman stopped. The second driver, 19-year-old Eliu Jimenez, kept driving. A judge handed him an eight-year prison sentence in early December but agreed to revisit the sentence in April 2015. It's possible, if not likely, Jimenez will receive probation at that point.

Huffman was crossing in a section of Federal Boulevard where there is no raised median. According to surveillance video obtained by 9Wants to Know, the first car struck him while he was waiting in the center of the road.

Two days after his death, 9Wants to Know recorded Americorps members continuously crossing in the same spot where Huffman was hit. Connie Griffith witnessed Huffman's death and said it's common for students and Americorps members to cross Federal Boulevard in that area instead of walking a quarter mile to the nearest crosswalk.

"They need to build some kind of traffic control so [pedestrians] can push a button to cross the street safely," Griffith said.

Denver Public Schools has a pair of campuses in the same location.

Earlier this year, 9NEWS reported more than half of all people killed in hit-and-runs in Colorado between 2008 and 2013 were pedestrians, and that more than half of the pedestrians killed were partially to mostly responsible for getting hit. Once a driver flees the scene, however, the legal focus shifts to the driver. He or she commits a felony simply by leaving the scene of a serious injury or fatal accident.

In April, Denver Police spent a morning writing more than a dozen jaywalking tickets in the area, but later that same day, 9Wants to Know returned to the area only to see more people crossing Federal Boulevard in that dangerous stretch.

While all sides seem to believe a crosswalk should be built in the area next to the old Loretto Heights campus, a spokesperson the CDOT tells 9Wants to Know more studies will have to be done in order to see what should be constructed.

In the meantime, in October Americorps member Sheldon Allmon, 19, died while trying to cross Federal. It was not a hit-and-run, but his death prompted Huffman's family to start a petition drive to try to convince CDOT to put in a crosswalk right away.

A tale of 2 drivers

Drivers may feel scared

When Michael Benton crashed his car into another car on a Colorado Springs street in 2012, the car he hit ended up crushing a plumber who was trying to get supplies out of the back of his car. Mark Meschelle died in the crash.

When 9Wants To Know met him at the Bent County Correctional Facility, he was at the front end of a 16-year prison sentence.

Of the half dozen hit-and-run drivers in prison 9Wants To Know wrote, only Benton agreed to an on-camera interview.

"I took an innocent man's life. I have to live with that every day. It's rough," he said. "I'll never be able to make up for what I did, and I have to live with that. If I could take it all back, I would."

He urged drivers who get into accidents to stop.

"If it's an accident, then why wouldn't you come forward and say 'I make a mistake,'" he said. "It's just not worth it to leave. You're just going to make things worse."

Not too long after 9Wants To Know met Benton, 9WTK met a man named Kenton Schassberger.

In June, Schassberger was driving on Interstate 25 headed to a grocery store when he hit a homeless man who was trying to cross the interstate.

"In this circumstance, there was nothing to react to. It was just, 'Boom!'" he said. "It was all I could think about. I had just hit somebody, and he didn't appear to be moving."

He admits to being scared, but he said he never considered taking off.

"My first reaction was to stop. There wasn't anything else," he said.

One of the top five reasons Denver Police say they hear as to why someone leaves the scene of an accident is a feeling of being too scared to stick around.

In Schassberger's case, he didn't even receive a traffic ticket. Instead he received something quite different.

"[The police] gave me a ride home," he said.

Key findings

Hit-and-run investigation

  • In 2014, hit-and-run drivers injured 1.3 people a day in Denver, Aurora, and Lakewood (between 2011-2013 the number was 1.2 a day)
  • Twenty-two people have died in Colorado in 2014 due to hit-and-run drivers. That represents an increase from 18 in 2013.
  • Between 2011-2013, 28 percent of all accidents in Denver (from fender benders to fatals) involved someone leaving the scene. The national average is closer to 10 percent.
  • Federal Blvd remains the most dangerous road in the city and county of Denver for hit-and-runs (in 2014, Federal saw almost two hit-and-runs involving injury every month).
  • 72 percent of victims in deadly hit-and-runs are male. The most vulnerable age range for fatal hit-and-runs is 50-59 (32% of all deaths).
  • Denver has averaged 17 hit-and-runs a day since 2011 (most were minor fender benders)
  • Pedestrians make up more than half of all deaths in hit-and-run accidents, and more than half of pedestrians are somewhat or mostly responsible for their own deaths (jaywalking, for example)
  • In 2014, 66 percent of fatal hit-and-run accidents were alcohol related, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. Police say intoxication Is the number one reason why people flee.
  • Following initial 9Wants to Know investigation, the Colorado State Legislature doubled the statute of limitations in fatal hit and runs from five to 10 years.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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