Originally created 01/21/05

Hit-and-runs plague county

Richmond County has so many hit-and-run vehicle accidents that three corporals with the sheriff's office work full time tracking down the offenders.

In 2004, more than 1,300 hit-and-runs were reported in the county, which accounts for about a fifth of all road wrecks, said Cpl. Darrell Grooms, one of two officers who work hit-and-run cases in the Northgate substation.

"We'll go to training classes, and other officers will sound surprised and say, 'You have a whole hit-and-run department?'" Cpl. Grooms said. "It's a large problem for us."

Columbia County had 125 hit-and-run accidents in 2004, about one-tenth of Richmond County's figure.

Luckily, there have been no fatalities resulting from the accidents during the past three years, but almost 100 people have been injured in Richmond County, said Cpl. Danny Whitehead, the hit-and-run investigator in south Augusta.

Most of the drivers flee the scene because they either don't have insurance or a valid driver's license; they have been drinking alcohol; or there are warrants for their arrest, Cpl. Grooms said.

"The majority of drivers fit into these four categories," he said. "A lot would have been charged with less if they just stayed at the scene."

In some cases, though, teenagers will crash into other vehicles.

The teens usually have proper insurance and a Georgia driver's license but don't want their parents to find out about the wreck, so they speed off.

Other times, an elderly driver might accidentally hit a fixed object or another car and not realize it, Cpl. Grooms said.

No matter the reason, a deputy will handle the basic accident report before handing the case off to one of the three corporals.

"As soon as the accident happens, they'll put out a BOLO (be on the lookout) with the best description they have," Cpl. Whitehead said. "If they can't locate the car, we'll take over the case."

The corporals will use whatever evidence they can to find the offender.

The most helpful bits of information a victim can provide are the offending vehicle's make and tag number.

With this information, they can determine the car's owner and address, Cpl. Whitehead said.

Until three years ago, even partial tags could yield results. Cpl. Grooms said workers in the county's tag office would produce a printout of possible matches to the license data given.

But when all statewide data was consolidated into one system, this was no longer possible.

Still, in some cases, he said, an Atlanta-based Georgia Bureau of Investigation detective will help area officers glean useful tips from partial tags; it's just more of an inconvenience.

Knowing only the car's make and model is basically useless.

"It's a very slim chance of finding the car without a tag number," Cpl. Grooms said. "I've had people say 'Go out and try to find a blue Chevrolet Camaro.' I'll run it through the system, and there are over 120,000 blue Camaros registered in Georgia."

The corporals sometimes catch hit-and-run drivers by collecting parts of the offenders' cars that have fallen off during the accident. Repair shops often help determine from what type vehicle the part came.

Paint and body shops also have been useful contacts, Cpl. Whitehead said. The shop employees can look out for damaged cars or notify police if someone brings in a vehicle without an accident report.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.

By the numbers:

Hit-and-run accidents during 2004:

1,324: Total in Richmond County

0: Fatalities

92: Injuries

593: Arrests

174: Cleared

550: Cases with no information to go on

119: Stolen cars

Source: Richmond County Sheriff's Office Hit and Run Division

After a hit-and-run

 •  Jot down the best description you can of the car that hit you, including the tag number, make, model and any distinguishing marks or stickers on the vehicle.

 •  If you see the driver, make note of the person's physical appearance.

 •  Follow the hit-and-run offender to get this information only if it's safe to do so and only briefly.

 •  Contact the Richmond County Sheriff's Office dispatch at 821-1080 and your insurance agency as quickly as possible.

 •  Look for parts of the person's car that might have fallen off the frame; this could be used as evidence in court.

 •  Determine whether anyone in the area witnessed the accident and can help make an identification.

 •  Don't get upset if you fail to write down the car's tag number; hit-and-run drivers often speed off suddenly.

Source: Cpls. Danny Whitehead and Darrell Grooms


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