Police could have jailed Miguel Colon long before they say he plowed a car into Josephine Rivera and her 2-year-old son in April, killing the child.
Less than a year before, in June 2014, they had stopped Colon for driving a friend's red Honda carelessly, squealing through the same Fairhill neighborhood where the fatal hit-and-run accident later occurred.
Colon, 22, of the Lawncrest section of the city, had two outstanding traffic warrants at the time of the 2014 traffic stop, and he didn't have a driver's license.
But Colon wasn't placed behind bars. Instead, police wrote him more tickets and let him go, court records state. Colon didn't show up for court.
His case brings into focus Philadelphia's long-standing problems of lax traffic enforcement and dangerous streets. More than 800,000 arrest warrants remain outstanding for drivers who ignored moving-violation citations.
No big city has a higher rate of accident claims than Philadelphia, insurance industry data show. Allstate Insurance has listed Philadelphia as the worst of the 10 largest cities since it started publishing annual reports 11 years ago.
Police say Colon was driving a borrowed white Infinity when he hit Rivera and her son on April 13 in front of their Mascher Street home, fatally injuring the boy and leaving his mother with serious head trauma.
"I heard the boom, and the car just drove off," said the child's grandmother, Gloria Aponte, pointing to site where the mother and child - David Alicea - were struck.
Colon surrendered to police Monday, six days after city police put out an arrest warrant for him in David's death. Surveillance video identified the car, and police say they determined he was the driver. Colon was charged with vehicular homicide, but was unable to post $500,000 bail and was being held in the Curran-Fromhold prison. Officials said he did not have a lawyer.
Officers are writing a third as many tickets for moving violations as they were in 1999, when they issued 418,881 citations. Last year, it was down 14 percent, and it continued dropping in the first half of 2015 - down 12 percent, compared with the same period the previous year.
Police officials privately concede that traffic enforcement is a low priority in the city, where crime has been on the rise.
In comparison, Pam Fischer, who ran the New Jersey highway safety office from 2007 to 2010, described traffic enforcement as a "critical, critical element" for road safety.
Researcher Dara Lee Luca, whose report on traffic enforcement was published last year in a national policy journal, said accidents go down when police ticket more drivers for moving violations.
When police aren't ticketing, she said, accidents increase.
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has stressed that when police find an outstanding warrant for a driver they have stopped, arrests should follow.
But that hasn't happened, court officials say. They said that in 2014 and the first part of 2015, police brought an average of 10 people a week to the courts for outstanding traffic citation warrants.
Civil rights lawyer Paul Messing, who won a 2003 federal suit against the city for wrongly jailing people on traffic warrants, said Philadelphia will never arrest its way out of the current problems.
Before the suit, the city had hundreds of people in jail for failing to pay moving violations.
"The city needs to find a solution," Messing said. "Just locking people up is not a solution to these kinds of issues."
Messing said that any serious effort to reverse the situation would require a massive expenditure by the city.
As one solution, the mayor's office has touted its work under a $525,000 federal grant received last year to increase pedestrian safety.
Denise Goren, director of the mayor's transportation office, said police in three districts have issued 2,000 tickets and warnings to motorists and pedestrians along roads that are especially dangerous. She said the city has offered safety classes for 4,600 schoolchildren.
Additionally, the city has targeted $20 million for transportation safety improvement, including installing anti-skid asphalt in high-traffic areas, reconstructing historic streets, and improving pavement markings on Roosevelt Boulevard, the mayor's office said.
Colon was first stopped for driving without a license and having no taillights in February 2010. In court he was found guilty, but never paid the tickets. Officials issued two warrants for his arrest.
Four years later, on June 14, 2014, state police arrested Colon on an Interstate 80 ramp in Carbon County. He had no license and was driving a 1999 Cadillac that reeked of marijuana.
Police said Colon was bleary-eyed, drunk, and carrying a pair of brass knuckles in his pocket. He was charged with driving under the influence and a variety of other offenses.
After an initial appearance before a magistrate judge, he was released.
Two days after his arrest, on June 16, 2014, Colon still had no license and was driving the borrowed Honda sedan in Philadelphia.
Officer Miguel Santiago, of the city's Narcotics Strike Force, stopped him on Cambia Street near Mascher.
By law, Santiago could have arrested Colon because of the outstanding traffic warrants and the Honda could have been seized.
But after writing Colon two tickets, Santiago released him and allowed the car's owner to retrieve the vehicle.
Colon never showed for court, and two more warrants were issued for his arrest.
State law requires that police have vehicles booted or towed when they catch motorists who don't have a driver's license.
Trooper Adam Reed, a State Police spokesman, said police have discretion on seizing cars, depending on the circumstance, such as if the officer needs to respond to a crime and must leave before the vehicle can be towed.
Lt. John Stanford, Philadelphia police spokesman, said Santiago acted in accordance with department policy in releasing the Honda to the owner. The officer did not respond to requests for comment.
In April 2015, Colon was driving another borrowed car, a white 2006 Infinity, when Rivera and her 2-year-old crossed Mascher Street. The Infinity struck both of them, knocking the mother under a parked pickup truck and sending the boy flying.
Aponte said her grandson suffered head trauma and other injuries. His mother was critically injured but recovered.
The boy died three days after the accident, with his mother at his side.
"We had to let him go," Aponte said. "It was God's will."
Philadelphia, a Driving Nightmare
In an Allstate Insurance Co. study of the best and worst cities for driving, Philadelphia is ranked last among the 10 most-populous cities - for the 11th straight year. It also ranks last, slightly behind Los Angeles, in terms of average years between accidents, and has the highest accident likelihood relative to the national average.
2015 2014 Between Accident
City *Population Rank Rank Accidents Likelihood
New York 8,405,837 151 155 7.7 +29.0%
Los Angeles 3,884,307 191 188 6.1 +63.3%
Chicago 2,718,782 134 139 8.0 +24.4%
Houston 2,195,914 170 158 7.2 +37.9%
Philadelphia 1,553,165 192 192 6.1 +64.4%
Phoenix 1,513,367 63 79 9.3 +7.4%
San Antonio 1,409,019 137 142 7.9 +26.1%
San Diego 1,355,896 123 112 8.4 +19.2%
Dallas 1,257,676 177 174 7.0 +43.0%
San Jose 998,537 165 151 7.3 +37.0%
SOURCE: Allstate Insurance Co. EndText
Inquirer staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.