Back-Seat Driver

‘Yellow Alerts’ proposed to combat California’s hit-and-run scourge

Tow trucks drive in a procession in March in memory of Michael Bower, 29, who was killed in a hit-and-run the previous month on a West Sacramento freeway ramp.
Tow trucks drive in a procession in March in memory of Michael Bower, 29, who was killed in a hit-and-run the previous month on a West Sacramento freeway ramp. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Hit-and-run drivers are a roadway scourge, often leaving carnage in their rearview mirrors.

The number of incidents is surprisingly high. In Sacramento County, 633 drivers fled crashes in a recent year. That’s 7 percent of crashes. Often, they leave behind an injured pedestrian, bicyclist or other driver. News media reports suggest the percentage is higher in other cities.

In some cases, the person doesn’t have a license. Or there’s a warrant out for their arrest. Drivers may be drunk or on drugs, or just unwilling to accept the consequences of their actions.

Statistics show that if drivers flee, law enforcement probably won’t be able to track them down. Is there something society can do about this form of irresponsibility? A Los Angeles assemblyman has an idea. He is pushing a “Yellow Alert” bill that would authorize the California Highway Patrol to post an alert on freeway message boards with the description of a car involved in a hit-and-run, if that driver left a seriously injured person behind.

“It’s gotten to the point where not a single week goes by without seeing another hit-and-run tragedy occurring,” Assemblyman Mike Gatto said in a recent press statement. “California has the existing alert infrastructure in place, and it costs us next to nothing to use it. I have no doubt the Yellow Alert System would help apprehend criminals and have them brought to justice.”

If his bill passes, California would have four freeway alert notices.

▪ AMBER Alert, which gives drivers information about a child abduction.

▪ Blue Alert, after a violent attack on a law enforcement officer.

▪ Silver Alert, which gives the description of a missing elderly person who may be disoriented and out wandering, possibly driving.

The Yellow Alert concept has backing from motorcycle, pedestrian and bicycle advocates who say those groups are susceptible to incidents where they are left injured as someone speeds away. It’s also supported by police chief and firefighter associations.

But, officially, at least, it’s opposed by the California Highway Patrol. Officials there say yet another alert could dilute the impact of AMBER Alert system – a system they created – by desensitizing drivers. The CHP also doesn’t want to find itself stuck trying to juggle simultaneous requirements to post different alerts on freeway message boards.

The CHP also argues that now that undocumented immigrants can get driver’s licenses, hit-and-run incidents may drop.

Gatto responded to the CHP’s concerns by amending his bill to give the CHP latitude in choosing when to post a Yellow Alert. The CHP declined comment last week on whether it will now support the bill.

Gatto is hoping it will. The governor last year vetoed a similar bill, saying he wanted to give a little more time, after the Silver Alert in 2012, before approving another alert. If the CHP is receptive, that likely will mean the governor will support it.

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