Hit-and-run cases shoot higher across Canada

A tragic hit-and-run accident in Regina that claimed the life of a skate-boarding teenager last fall highlights a growing problem with irresponsible drivers across the country.
Intersection in north Regina where Chris Kniffen was killed while riding home on his skateboard in October 2008. Police say the driver didn't stick around. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))
 A tragic hit-and-run accident in Regina that claimed the life of a skateboarding teenager last fall highlights a growing problem with irresponsible drivers across the country.

In October 2008, Chris Kniffen, 19, was hit by a vehicle while riding home on his skateboard in Regina. Police said the driver didn't stay, leaving Kniffen with a serious head wound on the roadside. He was taken off life support in hospital five days later.

Kniffen's death was the devastating outcome of one of thousands of cases of hit and run in Saskatchewan and across Canada.

And statistics obtained by CBC News reveal a dramatic rise in the number of hit-and-run accidents.

In Saskatchewan, the province's insurance agency SGI has noticed that vehicle damage claims reported as hit and runs have doubled in eight years.  

In 2000, the insurer handled 5,051 claims. In 2008, that number rose to 9,966. SGI says hit and runs made up 1 per cent of insurance payouts for damage in 2000; now they are 3 percent.

"Maybe people care less about … taking responsibility for their own driving actions," Sgt. Tim Korchinski, head of traffic services with the Saskatoon Police Service, told CBC News.

Korchinski, who has worked for more than 15 years in traffic, had not looked at the long-term hit-and-run trends in the city until last week. He said he was astonished by the data.

Korchinski said his department tries to be proactive, by advising motorists that they have a responsibility, when involved in an accident, to check for injuries, exchange information with other drivers, and call police if the vehicles are not drivable.

However, he noted that "the people that are committing the hit and runs usually don't stick around for us."

Across Canada, a different measure of hit and runs, by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, reveals the problem is not unique to Saskatchewan. 

Juristat, a federal government publication that gathers data on the justice system, tracked criminal charges laid for leaving the scene of an accident. Its numbers show there were 19,522 such charges laid nationwide in 2000. By 2007, that number had jumped to 35,270. The most dramatic increase was in Quebec, where hit-and-run charges nearly tripled in those years.

Saskatchewan's criminal charge numbers went from 2,461 to 3,972.

Growth blamed

Police in Regina and Saskatoon say the majority of hit and runs involve only minor damage to vehicles, and the story of Chris Kniffen is a rarity.

No detailed studies have been done in Saskatchewan, but a forthcoming study by University of Calgary researcher Richard Tay found that in 2005, 90 per cent of hit and runs in Calgary involved no injuries.

SGI says the rise in cases can be linked to a growing number of vehicles. There were 975,000 registered vehicles in Saskatchewan in 2008, a 33 per cent jump since 2001.

Other factors are also playing a role, according to the insurance company.

"Stores are open longer hours. There's just more concentration of vehicles. If you get into a parking lot nowadays, you find that people park in some of the most unusual places," said Doug Campbell, assistant vice-president of claims for SGI.

Campbell said another reason for the increase is that cars are more expensive to fix than a decade ago, which makes drivers more determined to report damage.

"In the old days, you might have a vehicle that would get a little bender, a little ding. It wasn't something that was real expensive," said Campbell. "Now, if you have a cracked bumper … and if it's real cold, as we have here in Saskatchewan, a chunk is actually missing."

Campbell said some drivers might also be claiming they were victims of hit and runs when they actually caused the damage themselves, such as running into a fence or garage door.

Tragic consequences

After Chris Kniffen was hit his family made several appeals for people with information to come forward.

His mother, Renee Kniffen, said her son always skateboarded on the side of major roads, although he never wore a helmet. She said she wonders if Kniffen would have survived had someone called an ambulance right away.

"There's always that chance. They don't know how long he laid out there. Somebody else found him," said Renee.

A chalk outline marked the spot where Chris Kniffen was struck on Oct. 3, 2008. ((CBC))
Researcher Richard Tay said Kniffen's case illustrates how leaving the scene of an accident can increase the likelihood of serious injury or death, because "emergency help in the first half-hour and hour is very critical to reduce the severity of injury."

"That's the biggest concern I have."

Tay said hit and runs have other costs, including victims having less likelihood of getting compensation for injuries, and greater costs for police, who have to spend time searching for offending drivers.

In the Kniffen case police were able to make an arrest some three weeks after the incident. A 38-year-old Regina man made a court appearance on a hit-and-run charge and drinking and driving charge last fall. The case is still before the courts.

Call for action

Tay said there should be more research into the problem in cities across Canada.

"So far, it's under the radar," he said. "And once it's recognized as a significant problem, then we can devote more resources to understand it and try to solve this problem."

Tay said cities could reduce hit and runs by installing security cameras in areas where hit and runs are common, making drivers think twice about leaving.