MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Florida has experienced an alarming increase in the number of fatal hit and run crashes during the last two years–and Miami-Dade County is leading the surge of these deadly accidents.READ MORE: South Florida Attorney David Weinstein Shares Reaction To Verdict In Derek Chauvin Murder Trial
The increase in hit and runs begs the question why and what is being done to make sure drivers that flee the scene of an accident are brought to justice.
Maria Cruz McGary’s life was crippled when her cousin, Rudy Aponte, was struck by a car and left to die on the side of the road.
Aponte is one of thousands in the state as Florida Highway Patrol estimates 80,000 hit and run accidents occurred in 2014. There were 9,749 in Broward County, and Miami-Dade County’s numbers are even worse.
“When you look at Dade County in itself, and out of those numbers in 2014, we had almost 17,480 hit and runs of those 80,000,” said FHP Trooper Joe Sanchez.
But the accidents range from someone backing up in to a car and taking off, all the way to hit and run fatalities.
The fatal hit and runs are the cases the Miami-Dade Police Department is most concerned about. They have a traffic homicide unit committed solely to finding the suspects in hit and run accidents that result in deaths or serious injuries.
Aponte’s is one of the unit’s open cases. Sgt. David Greenwell is one of the officers on the hunt for Aponte’s killer and dozens of other open cases.
“I think our percentage goes down but we’re good we have a high closure rate for these fatalities…50 percent,” Sgt. Greenwall.
That may sound like a low number.
But with only pieces of a puzzle to find suspects, it’s hard to solve these cases.
Sgt. Greenwell has been working these crashes for more than 16 years. The work load is overwhelming and the results are disappointing.READ MORE: Jaime's Law, Named After Parkland Shooting Victim, Reintroduced In Congress To Require Ammunition Background Checks
“We just don’t have the time we have too many to investigate.”
And a large percentage of the unsolved caes involve pedestrians, like Aponte.
In 2012 FHP says three of every five road fatalities were pedestrians struck by hit and run drivers. But hit and runs involving bicyclists have the most alarming statistics as they’ve increased by 55 percent from 2013 to 2014.
One of the most infamous hit and run crashes occurred on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2012. Bicyclist Aaron Cohen was riding on the Causeway when he was struck and killed. The driver served less than a year in jail.
The Aaron Cohen act changed that, however. Now drivers that hit someone and leave the scene can expect a minimum of four years in jail.
“You’re making it worse by leaving the scene because in some of these cases the drivers aren’t even at fault. So why are they leaving? They may have suspended driver’s license, they may have a bench warrant, they may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while driving, or they’re just plain scared,” said Sanchez.
But a penalty in an accident involving a fatality can be as little as a citation depending on the circumstances. Sgt Greenwell investigated a hit and run that began as just a minor accident, but when the driver left the scene, he turned what could have been a traffic citation into a felony.
“While he was fleeing and driving recklessly he lost control of his car, crossed a sidewalk, hit and killed a pedestrian. Now he is going to face jail time instead of a ticket.”
So the message from police is to stay on the scene.
Maria is hoping that one of Sgt Greenwell’s closed cases is Aponte’s, so they can finally feel closure.
“Our society has gotten to the point that we don’t value life anymore. Rudy had a life. It was just a life taken too soon.”MORE NEWS: Florida Regulators Scale Back Citizens Rate Hikes
Sergeant Greenwell says their best asset in helping find hit and run drivers is especially auto body shops. Suspects need to fix their cars so mechanics are officers’ best resource to finding justice for families like Aponte’s.