String of hit-and-runs leaves trail of questions
Drivers who ‘fail to remain’ at scene of collision should face harsher penalties, advocates say
Fred Ansaldo never saw the driver who hit him coming. He was riding a Bike Share bicycle on Front St. W. a few days before Christmas in 2016 when he suddenly felt something strike his back wheel.
The impact launched him off the bike and onto the hood of the car. He fell to the ground, and rolled out of the way just in time to see one of the vehicle’s wheels coming to a stop inches from his head.
As he lay there dazed, a realization struck him. “Oh s---,” he thought. “She’s running away.”
The driver had stopped momentarily after the impact, Ansaldo recalled in a recent interview, but he watched in shock as the person behind the wheel sped off down Front St., in full view of the crowds of people on the busy downtown street in the morning rush hour.
“It was surprise first, because I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Ansaldo said. “And then it was anger.”
The hit-and-run collision left Ansaldo with a broken tailbone, and he said still experiences pain as a result of the incident. But other victims of similar crashes haven’t escaped with only injuries.
In the past three weeks, there has been a rash of fatal hit-and-runs in Toronto. Since Sept. 21, four drivers have fled collisions that left a pedestrian dead, according to statistics compiled by the Star based on police news releases and media reports.
Of the 32 pedestrians killed so far this year, nine of them were victims of hit-and-runs. They include 50-year-old Isabel Soria, who died after she was hit by the driver of a pickup truck on Dufferin St. on June 11.
According to police, the driver got out of the vehicle, approached the dying woman, and then sped off. A 27-year-old man from Oshawa was later arrested.
On Sept. 26, a 61-year-old man was run down while crossing St. Clair Ave. E. The same day, a 79-year-old was struck in Scarborough by a minivan driver who left the scene; the victim died 10 days later.
In response to the Star’s questions last week, Toronto police couldn’t immediately say whether the number of “fail to remain” collisions in 2018 represents an increase over previous years. Nor could they say whether the majority of drivers who flee the scene are eventually apprehended.
But Sgt. Brett Moore of traffic services said “the public and police take these crimes especially seriously and apply all available resources and techniques to solve them.”
The penalties for hit-and-run drivers who are caught can be severe. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, a person who knowingly leaves the scene of deadly accident is liable for a maximum sentence of life in prison. If the victim was seriously injured, the driver could be jailed up to 10 years.
However, drivers can also face lesser, non-criminal charges under the provincial Highway Traffic Act, which sets maximum penalties for leaving the scene at a $2,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment.
When drivers do face criminal charges, they often get far less than the maximum.
In 2012, a driver who left the scene after killing 30-year-old Kevin Mounce in Niagara Falls, and who tried to cover up the crash by hiding her car and having a friend secretly repair her damaged windshield, received a jail sentence of two years less a day.
Lawyer and road safety advocate Patrick Brown, who represented Mounce’s family in a civil suit, questioned whether such sentences go far enough. He said any hit-and-run is “an egregious crime.”
“As soon as you leave the scene, you’ve made an intentional act to leave somebody back there,” he said. “That is a criminal act, and it should be faced with very harsh criminal penalties.” He argued non-criminal Highway Traffic Act charges are always inappropriate for hit-and-runs.
Although little research has been done on the subject, Paul Thomas Clements, a forensic psychiatric behaviour analyst and professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, said there’s a “broad continuum” of types of drivers who flee the scene of a serious crash.
Clements said the most common are drivers who already are committing another offence at the time of the collision, such as driving drunk or with a suspended licence, and leave to avoid harsher punishment.
Other hit-and-runners simply panic as a result of a “fight or flight” response, he said. This group is more likely to turn themselves in, especially if they’re younger.
“My experience is teenagers and younger people … tend to be the ones who can’t deal with the guilt,” he said. “As soon as they saw that they hit someone, they just hit the gas and go, they’re not thinking. But then when they get home and they start thinking about the reality of it, those who have morality just can’t deal with the guilt.”
A smaller group simply experience no remorse at injuring someone.
Clements said this type of driver may have a serious personality disorder that enables them to rationalize what they’ve done, often by blaming their victim with arguments like “if you weren’t out in the road so far, I wouldn’t have hit you.”
The recent hit-and-runs in Toronto include a tragic crash that killed 34-year-old artist and father Andre Alexander. He was riding his skateboard on Sheppard Ave. E. at about 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 8 when he was hit by a driver who, according to police, got out of her car, checked on Alexander and then drove away. Longtime friend Chris Hughes said he and Alexander’s family are hoping the driver turns herself in, not because they want her to be punished, but because her decision to leave the scene has left them with painful questions about what happened in Alexander’s final moments.
“The family just wants to lay him to rest right now and sort of grieve. It’s a tragedy,” Hughes said in an interview Thursday. “But we do want answers too.”
He said he didn’t think there was anything he or the family could say to convince the driver to come forward, but he hoped her conscience was weighing on her.
“I’m not certain if there’s any words. It’s been three days now ... I think it’s just going to be her own emotion and guilt that will do the trick.”
It’s been two years since Ansaldo was hit on his bike on Front St., and no charges have been laid against the driver who struck him. He’s still fuming the driver hasn’t faced consequences .
He said he was able to get the car’s licence plate number. But according to his account, which the police neither confirmed nor denied, officers told him they went to the home of the woman who owned the vehicle, but she said someone else had been behind the wheel. When the police returned about a week later, she had disappeared.
“I’m very, very upset about it,” he said. “Not only (did) she hit me, she might be on the road again and she might hit other people.”
Fred Ansaldo was the victim of a hit-and-run while riding his bike in 2016, suffering a broken tailbone. The driver has never been charged.