Is it Really a Hit and Run? Let’s Look at the Law

December 3, 2018 | David Abels
Is it Really a Hit and Run? Let’s Look at the Law

Understanding Hit and Run Accidents

Most people have heard the term “hit and run,” and probably assume they understand what it means. However, the precise legal definition may differ from what people think they know. In addition, that legal definition varies from state to state, under different state laws.

A big myth is that a hit and run requires a serious injury or death. The media perpetuates this by overwhelmingly covering hit and run stories where pedestrians are struck by drivers who don’t stop. In actuality, the legal definition of hit and run is broader and covers more scenarios than just that one.

What exactly is a Hit and Run?

Hit and run applies even in minor accidents. The “run” part, or leaving the scene after an accident, can constitute the primary violation of the law. Most states require drivers to stay on the scene anytime an accident causes property damage or injury to a person. Some states use an even broader definition that even includes animals. This makes a driver who hits and abandons an animal criminally liable for animal cruelty.

In other words, a driver does not have to seriously injure or kill a person to commit a hit and run. Of course, doing so makes the potential consequences more serious. But failing to stop after something as insignificant as knocking out another car’s tail light can also fall under the hit and run statutes of your state.

How Common are Hit and Run Accidents?

In 2016, there were an estimated 737,100 hit and run accidents in the US. 

This equates to a hit and run accident occurring somewhere in America every 43 seconds. Out of this massive number of hit and run incidents, over 2,000 resulted in fatalities.

When focusing on Illinois, the numbers tell a story that is just as bad. The state of Illinois makes the top 10 list of the states with the most hit and run accidents. It is estimated that there are an estimated 9 hit and run violations for every 10,000 people in Illinois. 

When you look at the number of motor vehicle accidents in Illinois in 2017 (nearly 312,000) it is not hard to imagine why there are so many hit and run violations.

Why do drivers flee the scene of an accident?

After most accidents, both drivers do exactly what they’re supposed to. They both stop, exchange information, wait for the police to arrive, and give their side of the story before leaving. 

[What to Do After a Car Accident That Was Not Your Fault]

However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes people believe that they can get away with a car accident and any negative repercussions if they just drive away from the scene. 

Some of the most common reasons people flee the scene of a car accident include: 

  • The driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They may flee the scene if they’re afraid of being convicted of a DUI/DWI. The penalties for DUIs can be steep, including license suspension, fines, and jail time, especially if the person has a previous DUI charge. 
  • The driver is driving without a license or with a suspended license. If the driver doesn’t have proper documentation to give to a police officer when asked, they may flee the scene in order to avoid extra fines for tickets or a further suspension of their license. 
  • The driver doesn’t have auto insurance. Driving without car insurance is illegal in the state of Illinois, so a driver may try to get away to avoid fines associated with driving without insurance. 
  • They were actively commiting a crime when they hit you. The most common crime that fits this category is that the car was stolen. Of course, if someone hits you while in a stolen vehicle, they’re not going to wait around for the police to show up. When people report their car as stolen, that information goes into a police database. So once the police arrive to document the scene, that stolen vehicle is going to pop up. This may be more common than it sounds since nearly 10,000 cars are stolen in Chicago each year
  • The driver has a warrant out for their arrest. If a driver has a warrant out for their arrest, they’re very likely to run if they get into a car accident. This is by far the most obvious reason someone will commit a hit and run since staying at the scene of the accident will result in their arrest. 
  • The driver panicked. In the case of young and inexperienced drivers, they may panic when they get into a car accident and end up fleeing the scene rather than sticking around as they should. They may also make this poor decision because they are afraid of getting into trouble with their parents. 
  • They think that they can get away with it. Some people don’t want the headache, hassle, or insurance premium increase that comes with an accident. So they drive away, fleeing the accident scene, instead. They’re under the impression that hit and runs cases are impossible to solve and that they’ll never be found. However, witness statements, advanced traffic software, and the increasing number of cameras recording roadways all mean that more and more hit and runs are solved. 

There are many reasons why someone would want to flee the scene of the accident. But it’s never a good idea and rarely works out in someone’s favor. Overall, the penalties for fleeing are often much worse than if the driver would have just stayed to exchange information and deal with any consequences that may have resulted.

What if a Driver Hit a Parked Car or Fence?

A driver who hits and damages a parked car or unattended vehicle must take reasonable steps to contact the owner. Generally, this requires writing a note with complete contact information and leaving it under the damaged vehicle’s windshield wiper. Drivers should also note the license plate number of the vehicle they hit and file an incident report with the police. However, they do not have to wait around for hours, hoping the owner will return.

Under Illinois law, drivers are specifically required to leave a note and report the incident to the police, in writing. This equally applies when a driver hits a fence, wall, tree, or other property. Drivers should also contact their insurance company, even though it may be tempting not to. Insurance companies can deny claims for damage to the insured driver’s vehicle based on the failure to report. Furthermore, drivers who fail to report are more likely to face lawsuits. Finally, their insurance companies may attempt to disclaim all liability for damages.

What If There Are Injuries or Fatalities?

In a serious accident when someone sustains injuries or there is a fatality, a hit and run may constitute a felony. This could be up to and including a Class 1 felony, which carries significant penalties. (For reference, even in hit and run accidents where only property damage takes place, the subsequent misdemeanor charge can still carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail.)

When accidents involve injuries or fatalities, drivers must fulfill additional requirements. Under Illinois law, drivers must stop at the scene—or as close as is safe—and try to avoid obstructing traffic until police arrive.

In cases where the driver suffers injury and must leave the scene for emergency care, the driver can report the accident to a nearby police station or sheriff’s office as soon as injuries permit. Police may also come to the hospital to take statements, and an injured driver may make a report then. In circumstances where the driver is in the hospital but other passengers are able to make a report at the scene of the accident, they may do so.

What are the consequences of a felony hit-and-run?

Felony hit and run carries severe consequences. In Illinois, felony hit and run can be a Class 2 felony, and a guilty driver may face three to seven years in prison. When a hit and run has caused a fatality, the driver may go to prison for as long as 15 years. Even in less serious cases, drivers with a hit and run convictions will have a permanent criminal record and the state may suspend their driver’s licenses for at least six months. Lifetime revocations are possible as well.

What should I do if I cause an accident?

If you caused an accident, always stop and check on the status of any other parties. Call for medical help if needed. Always exchange complete contact information with the other driver(s), call the police, and call your insurance company. Even if your accident only involves property damage, follow these critically important steps.

Leaving the scene of an accident can result in criminal penalties, and can also increase civil penalties. If a victim files a lawsuit and the hit-and-run is found liable, the court may award punitive damages. Even in less serious cases, a hit and run can cause an insurance company to cancel a driver’s policy.

The bottom line is, nobody should leave the scene of an accident! Except in cases where you suffer an injury and leave to seek immediate medical attention, the law almost always will always consider it a hit and run. This is true even if the only apparent damage is a dent to another car in a parking lot. If there is no one inside the vehicle, leave a note and call the police. Otherwise, stay on the scene until all reports are filed. Ensure there are no injuries, and if there were witnesses, get their complete contact details as well. Witness statements can prove critical for both insurance claims and lawsuits.

What should I do if I’m the victim of a hit and run?

Getting into a car accident is scary and stressful enough. When the person that hit you drives off, all of that is just compounded.

After you’re involved in a hit and run, you should first assess whether you or anyone else is injured. If someone needs immediate medical attention, don’t hesitate to call 911 for emergency medical services.

Once you’ve assessed whether or not everyone is okay, you should call the police to report the hit and run incident and to get an officer to the accident scene.

If you have any information about the driver that fled that will aid in the investigation, you should report that to the operator. These details could include a license plate number, make or model of the car, or description of the driver. This will allow the police in the area to start looking out for the driver right away.

Once you are able to leave the scene, you should immediately seek medical attention. Even if you do not think that you are seriously injured, shock and adrenaline can cover up injuries. Getting medical attention right away will also officially document your injuries and help your personal injury claim.

Your final steps should be to speak with a car accident attorney as soon as possible. Getting an attorney involved right away will help to preserve evidence, prevent the insurance company’s sly tactics, and ensure that you are protected from the start.

Is it likely that the police will catch the driver who hit me?

There are a number of different ways that police can catch someone who commits a hit and run. 

One of the best ways is to get a description of the vehicle and driver. Speaking to witnesses and the person who was hit can sometimes provide authorities with a partial plate, description of the vehicle, or even some quickly snapped photos. This allows police to put out an APB (all-points bulletin) in the nearby area.

Police may also be able to locate identifying details from surveillance camera footage. Nearby businesses, parking lots, and traffic cams may have footage that can help identify and catch a hit and run driver. 

Finally, they may use social media like Twitter and Nextdoor as a tool to help find the person who hit you. This kind of effort is usually reserved for serious accidents but it can be very effective.

Contact an Experienced Hit and Run Accident Attorney in Chicago

If you're a hit-and-run victim suffering from injuries, speak to a Chicago car accident lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the experienced lawyers at Abels & Annes, PC, for a free consultation at (312) 924-7575 or using our online form, and learn if we are able to help you.

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David Abels


David Abels has carved a niche for himself in the personal injury law sector, dedicating a substantial part of his career since 1997 to representing victims of various accidents. With a law practice that spans over two decades, his expertise has been consistently recognized within the legal community.

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