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Families grieve as hit-and-run deaths reach a record in Philadelphia

Hit-and-run fatalities this year rose to a record 31, more than triple that of 2019. About one in four Philadelphia traffic fatalities this year were hit-and-runs, police say.

Tina Parker at her Lawnside home, where she has large cardboard cutouts of her grandchildren.
Tina Parker at her Lawnside home, where she has large cardboard cutouts of her grandchildren.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

It began as an evening like any other.

Elizabeth Parker stepped out into the mild September night and onto the streets of Germantown, as she had for decades. Liz, as her loved ones called her, had slowed down over the years — she was 81, a great grandmother and a recent breast cancer survivor — but she still insisted on going about her business.

“Nobody could tell her nothin’,” her youngest daughter, 53-year-old Tina Parker, said.

That Tuesday, not long after the sun had set, Parker was crossing Chelten Avenue, perhaps heading to the store, when a driver in an SUV ran a red light and slammed into her.

The driver sped off, leaving her injured in the street. She died a week later, becoming one of 31 victims in Philadelphia to be killed by a hit-and-run driver this year — a record toll.

During the pandemic, the number of all hit-and-run accidents peaked and has eased off slightly. Even so, fatalities have more than tripled this year, when compared with 2019.

Perhaps even more troubling, of the city’s 117 fatal car crashes this year to date, drivers fled the scene one out of four times, police records show.

Parker’s case, like most fatal hit-and-runs, has not been solved. Police made arrests in only about 45% of the cases, based on an analysis of incidents from 2019 to 2021. (A police spokesperson said the volume of nonfatal hit-and-run crashes is so high that the city does not systematically track its clearance rate.)

Aaron Chalfin, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania who researches traffic deaths, said the trend of fatal hit-and-runs going up while nonfatal incidents are down was alarming, and could have complex causes.

“Could it be that there are certain drivers now engaging in really, really reckless driving? Or could 2022 just be an unlucky year?” Chalfin said. “It’s hard to know.”

According to an Inquirer analysis, the fatalities appear to be clustered in a few neighborhoods that tend to have lower incomes than the city average as well as declines in both public transit use and increases in car use. Of the 31 deaths, most were pedestrians struck during attempts to cross streets at intersections, or in some cases, mid-block, according to police reports. Others were biking, getting off a bus, or driving a car.

Parker, for example, was the third person to die within a few blocks of the Chelten intersection within three months.

The Germantown community responded to the surge in vehicular deaths by forming the Germantown Traffic Safety Coalition. Sharrieff Ali, a property manager, became its chair earlier this year. He said that residents were fed up, and that the city seemed slow to react.

» READ MORE: New data on Philly’s commutes show strong subway and bike use, need for better buses

“The city has not been active in going into the community to do things like hold forums on traffic safety,” he said. “And the police don’t have the manpower to support traffic safety either.”

Chalfin pointed to research suggesting that, during the pandemic, drivers drove faster through streets less congested with both cars and pedestrians. After restrictions were lifted and vaccines became available, pedestrians returned but the riskier driving may have persisted, leading to more fatal crashes. He also noted that drinking increased over this time.

“The pandemic changed so many things at once, it can be hard to come up with a consensus,” he said. “But there was groundwork laid during the pandemic … You saw less social control. People who are increasingly less connected to community organizations. Neighbors aren’t out being as watchful of other neighbors all the time. I think there’s something to all of that.”

A grim toll

A fatal hit-and-run case that overcame the odds and resulted in charges is that of James Doughty.

Doughty, 43, was bicycling with his girlfriend near Bustleton and Cottman Avenues, in Mayfair, around 1 a.m. in August when he was struck by a car so forcibly that his bike was split in two. Doughty was biking into traffic, according to police.

A former union drywall finisher and a father of five, he struggled with addiction and mental health issues, said Justine, his eldest daughter, 25. He loved his granddaughters — Justine’s two little girls — and would send Justine drawings of cartoon characters for them.

Doughty underwent nine surgeries as Justine held out hope he’d survive, but he died in September at Jefferson Hospital.

Two months later, Thiarles Dasilva, 31, a Las Vegas man, was charged in connection with Doughty’s death with homicide by vehicle and accident involving death.

Even so, families, like Justine’s, still feel a void. “I’m kinda lost without my dad.” Then she said:

“I don’t understand how people can just hit a person and leave.”

» READ MORE: Opinion: Police left Elizabeth Negron on a Germantown street. She was killed in a hit-and-run.

Many killed by hit-and-run drivers have been younger. At least a dozen were 30 or younger, according to police, news reports and Inquirer research. Among them:

  1. Jesus Gomez Rosario, 17, a high school junior who loved to play guitar and dreamed of becoming a pilot, killed in May while skateboarding in North Philly one night when a dirt bike rider hit him and fled.

  2. Nyier “Nas” Cunningham, 28, who played harmonica, beatboxed, and rapped, a father and a fixture in West Philly’s creative community, killed by a truck while biking in July near his Parkside home.

  3. Dia Lee, 21, a Johns Hopkins University student, whose death helped spur the creation of the Germantown Traffic Safety Coalition. The driver of a Tesla hit her last June as she crossed Germantown Avenue just after her shift at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books.

Caught in bureaucracy

Ali, from the Germantown Traffic Safety Coalition, said his group sought more holistic and permanent changes to solve the hit-and-run problem such as traffic calming redesigns, speed or red light cameras, and flashing radar feedback signs designed to encourage drivers to slow down.

“Dia Lee was hit by a speeding driver,” said Ali, who lived a few blocks from the woman. “The deaths are caused by speed. We want people to be more conscious of the speed and slow down.… It’s just common sense.”

A pattern of hit-and-runs isn’t enough to automatically trigger roadway safety improvements, Ali’s group learned.

When the coalition asked the city to install brighter LED street lighting in the area, the Streets Department told him the new lights would be rolled out citywide soon enough — even though officials acknowledged last year that plan was critically delayed. Permanent traffic calming measures require lengthy traffic studies and those are unlikely to lead to any quick solutions.

“That’s the kind of response you get. People are just caught in this bureaucracy,” he said. “They’re talking about SEPTA reorganizing its system to reduce deficits, and they’re talking about reducing bus service,” he said. “ … That’s a real challenge. You need to increase the frequency and dependability of public transportation to have an impact on this stuff.”

Philadelphia got a $25 million federal grant to improve street safety this year as part of its Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030. The city is also “continuing to redesign roadways to reduce traffic fatalities and expand automated enforcement systems that have been proven to save lives,” a city spokesperson said.

» READ MORE: Broken streetlight complaints in Philly triple due to botched city contract

Elizabeth Parker was killed just a block from her Germantown rowhouse, where she and her husband had raised their five kids and looked after their 32 grandchildren, where she came home after shifts at the door factory, where she danced to Teddy Pendergrass, her favorite singer. “Teddy!” she’d scream, whenever he’d come on.

“She was a mother to everybody,” Tina Parker said, “not just us.”

When she and her siblings were finally allowed to see her at Einstein, she was in critical condition with broken bones in her neck, her ribs, and along her left side.

But she had her eyes open, “like she was tryin’ to say something, tell us something.”

They thought, maybe, she’d still make it through.

The driver who struck Parker has still not been found.

But Tina said she wasn’t focused on the driver or whether they will be caught. She just hopes the person learns from the fatal accident and that it doesn’t happen to someone else, to another family.

“Catching the person is not gonna bring my mother back,” she said.

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