Hit-and-run cases rise in Beaufort County

rlurye@islandpacket.comMarch 8, 2014 

The impact cracked Alexandria Adams' teeth, caused her head to swell, and injured her back and knee.

Badly bloodied, the 17-year-old needed help, but the driver of the car that hit her in September stopped only briefly before he drove away from the Bluffton intersection.

The cuts and scrapes Adams suffered in the Sept. 25 hit-and-run have healed, but she says she'll always remember how she felt afterward.

"It made me feel like I was just garbage," she says. "You don't feel like you matter in the world."

Statistics suggest similar accidents are on the rise in some areas of Beaufort County. Overall, there were 28 hit-and-run accidents resulting in injury or death in 2013, up from 20 in 2012 and 15 in 2011, according to reports from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, S.C. Highway Patrol, and police departments in Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal.

In Bluffton, police saw five hit-and-run accidents causing injury in 2013, compared to one in 2011. Overall, traffic accidents increased 28 percent in that time.

A rise in these accidents may be a side effect of a growing population, Capt. Joseph Manning of the Bluffton Police Department said. The town does not have population statistics available between those years, according to spokeswoman Debbie Szpanka, but permits for new houses increased about 60 percent from 2011 to 2013.

To combat accidents of all kinds, the department is applying for a grant to form a new traffic unit, he said.

Roads countywide are getting more traffic, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said, due in part to the recovering tourism industry. In the past year, hotel occupancy increased 5 percent in Beaufort, according to the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.

On Hilton Head Island, where two pedestrians have been killed in hit-and-runs in the past four months, occupancy increased 3.9 percent, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

The Sheriff's Office charged 32-year-old Katie Byam of Bluffton in the Feb. 14 hit-and-run accident on Lagoon Road that killed Joshua Michael Hebenstreit, 28, of Hilton Head. The S.C. Highway Patrol is still searching for clues in the Nov. 3 wreck on South Forest Beach Drive that left 34-year-old Jenny Mercer of Hilton Head Island dead.

"When the economy was poor in 2008 through 2011, we had less people traversing Hilton Head, so our collisions went down," Tanner said. "Once the economy starts to get better, traffic increases."

Tanner and Manning said they're preparing for the trend to continue. However, officers face additional challenges in investigating hit-and-runs, said Ronald Wekenmann, deputy chief of the Port Royal Police Department.

"An accident by definition is not intentional," he said. "To prevent people from running afterward is even harder."

Sometimes, hit-and-run drivers flee after causing an accident because they fear being charged with more serious crimes, Tanner said, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or driving a stolen vehicle.

When the accidents happen in bad weather or on roads without security cameras or lights, it can be easy for drivers to get away, Tanner said.

"We need witness assistance," Tanner said. "And, of course, the presence of law enforcement is an important deterrent. ... We're not going to get less drivers."

Some incidents, though, do end with an arrest. In Alexandria Adams' case, the driver who struck her bike Sept. 25 left his name and then drove away before police or EMS arrived, according to Bluffton police.

Matt Falk, 30, was charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in minor personal injury in December after officers learned he lived in Ridgeland. His case is pending, according to the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

Nonetheless, Dawn Adams notes that Falk was charged with a misdemeanor in an incident that might take Alexandria years to recover from.

She suffered a broken nose, cracked sternum, sensory nerve damage, brain damage and injured a disc in her spine and her knee. She can't walk far without assistance or play games with her younger brother without getting dizzy and winded, she said.

Several Hilton Head Island businesses held a benefit March 1 to raise money for her medical needs, raising about $3,000. More than money, though, Dawn Adams said she wants to see drivers take more care on the roads and law enforcement work to prevent similar accidents.

"There's a situation that's going to get a lot worse," Dawn Adams said. "These victims don't just live with the physical aspects of this. It's emotional, too."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

Related content:

Woman said she thought branch struck van in fatal Hilton Head hit-and-run, February 17, 2014

Bluffton woman charged in hit-and-run death, February 16, 2014

Mother seeks closure in deadly Hilton Head hit-and-run, January 26, 2014

Man charged in Bluffton hit-and-run, December 4, 2013

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