Irwin Cohen had analyzed crime stats for years, but when reporters started calling him in late 2013 asking what was behind a spate of three fatal Lower Mainland hit-and-runs in the span of a week, the criminologist realized there was a dearth of data looking at those who flee the scene of a serious collision.
Professor Cohen, RCMP senior research chair in crime reduction at the University of the Fraser Valley, couldn't say whether 2013 had an unusually high number of hit-and-runs or even how frequently they occurred in Metro Vancouver's congested roadways.
"From a criminological perspective, the challenge is if it's a successful hit and run, we don't know anything about it," Prof. Cohen said.
Soon after the media calls, Prof. Cohen and fellow UFV faculty member Amanda McCormick began collecting police data on hit-and-run offences in the Lower Mainland starting from 2008. Eventually, they amassed data all the way up to the end of 2013, which they found was actually one of the years with the lowest number of recorded incidents. There were only 282 in 2013 compared with the average of 306 over that time period.
Only about a quarter to a third of all the suspects in those incidents were ever caught by police, but the pair pulled their police records and found about half were repeat offenders with two or more previous criminal charges, Prof. McCormick said.
"We found that hit-and-run drivers were significantly more likely to have a criminal record than hit-and-stay drivers – about 50 per cent of hit-and-run drivers have a previous criminal charge compared to about 20 per cent of hit-and-stay drivers," she said.
Though many may have guessed that hit-and-run suspects might be wary of more contact with police because of past run-ins, professors McCormick and Cohen say their data prove this connection and could one day help law enforcement target blocks where a disproportionate number of other crimes – such as break and enter, theft and assaults – intersect with serious or fatal collisions.
"You map that on your district or city map and you overlay that with crime data and what you typically will find is there is usually some considerable overlap in terms of hot spots between either certain kinds of crimes and unsafe driving and collisions," Prof. Cohen said.
He said they are now developing a strategy for a city in the Lower Mainland to use a Data Driven Analysis of Crime and Traffic Data (DDACT) approach to flood traffic enforcement officers into troubled areas at times in the day when the greatest number of driving infractions are occurring.
This DDACT approach has been shown to have reduced overall crime statistics in about 10 American jurisdictions, he added. When drivers see the traffic officers out in force, they tend to slow down, buckle up and put away their cellphones, which has the direct effect of decreasing the number of crashes in the area, Prof. Cohen said.
"But because they also do a lot of stops, it's not about generating revenue, it's not about writing tickets, it's about police contact," Prof. Cohen said.
"You hope that that changes behaviours, but you also run these people in the police databases and what these locations have found is that you find a disproportionate number of prolific offenders."
When traffic officers arrest anyone with outstanding warrants, the DDACT approach has an indirect effect of "potentially preventing crimes, stopping crimes," he said. "Simply by doing this, you're getting extra bang for your buck."
Professors McCormick and Cohen presented their findings to the Maryland-based Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences earlier this year and said their partner municipality in Metro Vancouver could start using DDACT as early as next year.