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Only sour notes in hit parade on Florida roads

ST. PETERSBURG

Someone backed into my new car in a fast-food parking lot. The evildoer drove off without leaving a note.

I didn't discover the dent until the end of the day. I'm a peaceful guy, kind to children, friendly to strangers. I was so angry I wanted to track down the miscreant and leave a rattlesnake in his or her mailbox. Or, at least, speak sharply to the person for a few minutes.

Instead I called the cops. I called my insurance company. I visited a body shop.

The sympathetic police officer filed a report.

The sympathetic insurance agent reminded me about my high deductible, $1,000.

At the body shop, a sympathetic guy with a hammer tallied up the damages: $1,200.

Because of my high deductible I wrote a personal check for the repairs, all the while feeling somebody had pointed a gun at my head and stolen $1,200 from my wallet.

• • •

Almost everyone I know has experienced a hit and run, some of them more than one. In 2006, according to the most recent Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records, there were 256,200 crashes in our state. The guilty party fled before the police arrived 35 percent of the time. Thirty-five percent. In Florida, we play dodge-em cars for real. Then we get the heck out of there.

A few of us do get lucky.

In 2006, a Good Samaritan spared my wife and me from writing a check to another body shop. At Tampa's WestShore Plaza, a young guy blocked the escape route of a luxury car, driven by an older woman, after it bashed my wife's Honda. "Oh, it doesn't look like much damage,'' the driver said, sounding inconvenienced by the delay. Her insurance paid for our repairs — $800 worth.

In Florida, pray for a witness. Pray for a parking lot videocamera. If you happen to live in my hometown, St. Petersburg, hope for an encounter with a human bloodhound named Scott Blanchette.

• • •

If your bumper is nicked in the parking lot at Firehouse Subs on Fourth Street N, if somebody rear-ends your chariot on Tyrone Boulevard and then burns rubber — and if you have called the cops — your case will come to the attention of the St. Petersburg Police Department's two-person hit-and-run team.

Blanchette, 34, is the lead investigator. In nine years on the force, he has done everything from drug enforcement to community relations. A lot of police work is thankless, but not his. When he nabs someone, he usually hears a delighted "thank you'' from a citizen who won't have to pay for auto repairs out of pocket.

As for the person who left the scene of the accident and now stands before him, looking guilty, he usually asks, "What were you thinking?''

Why do motorists risk jail? Blanchette can count the ways. "Some of them look around and figure they can get away with it. Some hit the other car while drunk and know they're going to get a DUI. Some don't have a license or have a suspended license. Some are wanted for other crimes. Some don't have insurance. Some of the very elderly drivers are completely oblivious that they have hit another car. Some are young drivers driving daddy's car and don't want to get into trouble at home.''

Got any advice for us?

"If you're in your car when it gets hit, pay attention. Very often the other driver hangs around long enough to see if you're okay. Then he leaves. There's a tendency, when you get hit, to fumble in your wallet for your license and your insurance card. Do that later.

"Get out of your car, if possible, and immediately walk to the rear of the other car and take down the tag number. Also, pay close attention to the driver's face. If you give us the tag number, we'll find the owner. If you give us a good description of the driver, we can prove who was behind the wheel.''

Leaving an accident scene is a criminal offense. If convicted you can have six points added to your license; 12 points in a year and you lose your license for a month. If there are injuries, the judge can suspend your license for a year or more. If you're convicted in a fatality, you'll go to prison.

• • •

St. Petersburg is a lovely city, home to soccer moms and Little League dads, nice-as-pie librarians, kindly school teachers, folks who love their dogs and grandchildren. Last year we had 9,144 car accidents and slunk away before the police arrived 25 percent of the time.

Blanchette and I drive around town following leads from Good Samaritans. In his patrol car he flips through a thick collection of folders. "How about this one?''

Last May, a GMC Yukon left the scene of an accident. Blanchette tracks down the sleepy owner, who says she has no idea how her truck could have been involved in a crash. The officer does. She works at night, sleeps during the day, and has two teenage sons. "They don't ever drive my car,'' the woman protests. With a lot more work Blanchette might prove one of those sons was the driver. Today he is satisfied just to get the woman's insurance information to give to the owner of the damaged car.

He flips through another folder. "Here's a real good one.''

On Sept. 2, a pickup truck backed into another pickup truck in a Walgreens lot on Park Street. The young driver got out of his truck, looked at the damage he had wrought, and skedaddled.

Sadly — for him — there was a witness. There were also videocameras recording the action.

Blanchette got still photos of the accident, and still photos of the at-fault driver, from the Walgreens video. Cameras also recorded the driver inside the store when he picked up a package of developed film.

Basic police work: The name on the package of film led Blanchette to an address in the neighborhood and a truck with a dented bumper. Now an interesting wrinkle: The person who answered the door, the owner of the truck, was not the person in the Walgreens video. He was not the driver.

However, he had a daughter, and the daughter had a boyfriend. She had sent him to Walgreens to pick up her film in dad's truck.

Bingo.

When the boyfriend found out the bloodhound was on his trail, he agreed to come to the police station for a chat.

I was in the room to hear it.

It wasn't a Perry Mason moment when the young man finally met the bloodhound — he didn't break down and say, "YES! YES! I DID IT!'' It was a quiet, "I feel really stupid and I'll never do it again.'' The 20-year-old received a gentle lecture and tickets for causing an accident and for leaving the scene. Blanchette, in turn, received insurance information he could give to the owner of the damaged truck. Now that wronged fellow could get it fixed on somebody else's dime.

No such luck for me.

"I wish I could have helped you,'' Blanchette told me at the end of our adventure.

He catches the bad guys a little less than half the time. I was one of the unlucky ones without a witness or videocamera to record the crime.

But I haven't given up. If you know who damaged my little Honda, feel free to call. If the snake has a mailbox, maybe he'll encounter something similarly cold-blooded one of these days.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Only sour notes in hit parade on Florida roads 09/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 1:40pm]

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