Bill would use electronic sign system to curb California's deadly hit-and-run 'epidemic'

A state bill would allow law enforcement to activate a
A state bill would allow law enforcement to activate a "yellow alert" and broadcast vehicle information on electronic highway signs in California in search of drivers suspected of hit-and-run collisions.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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State officials are working to address what they call an epidemic of hit-and-run accidents in Southern California. Their plan calls for using electronic highway signs to send out emergency "yellow alerts" in the area of a serious hit-and-run asking the public for information.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, drivers left the scene of about 20,000 accidents in 2014 in Los Angeles alone, killing 27 people and seriously injuring 144. Only 1 in 5 such cases is ever solved.

"I think people continue to flee the scene of accidents because they feel they can do so with impunity," said California State Assemblymember Mike Gatto, who introduced the highway sign bill and whose district includes parts of L.A. County.

A similar program in Denver led to a 76 percent arrest rate in hit and run cases, up from 20 percent the year before. It was expanded to the entire state of Colorado.

Gatto's bill, AB 8, passed the state Assembly with bipartisan support and cleared the Senate Transportation Committee last week, despite opposition from the California Highway Patrol. The agency wrote Gatto in May, saying his bill would decrease the effectiveness of Amber Alerts, which are currently displayed on highway signs in the case of a missing person.

AB 8 California Highway Patrol

Gatto argued that the same signs are routinely used to display messages urging water conservation and seat belt compliance.

"I just don’t think anybody can claim that the signs are going to be overused," he said.

The Highway Patrol and Gatto's office are talking about amendments that would give the CHP more control over where and when the messages would be displayed. Gatto said he hopes to alleviate their concerns.

A similar bill by Gatto was passed by both houses of the legislature last year but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown due to the same objections expressed by CHP. Gatto said since then he's rallied road safety advocates and collected more information on the effectiveness of the sign messages and he hopes that will change the governor's mind.

Earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles set up its own system of social media alerts and a $50,000 reward for information pertaining to deadly hit and run accidents.