Law and Order: Not just another statistic

Police are catching 85% of drivers in hit-and-run accidents, but beyond the figures, it's important to remember the human cost, says niece of victim.

Shmuel Rotshtein_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmuel Rotshtein_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One year ago, on a Tuesday morning, a hardworking 67- year-old man crossed the street in Rehovot at 5 a.m. on his way to work at a cleaning company.
The pedestrian, Shmuel Rotshtein, was unaware that a car driven by a young man, who police say was intoxicated, was speeding toward him.
The driver, 19-year-old Sagi Gamliel, and his passenger, Hamema Karni, a girlfriend, had spent the night in a public park drinking with friends, according to police.
By the time Gamliel noticed Rotshtein on the street, it was too late. He tried in vain to swerve left, but struck Rotshtein and fatally wounded him. Rotshtein succumbed to his injuries on the road.
The driver and his passenger did not stop to provide assistance, state prosecutors have charged. Instead, they arrived at Gamliel’s home and went to bed, allegedly hoping that by pretending nothing had happened, they would escape the consequences of being active participants in a lethal hit-and-run.
But a few hours later, police caught up with the two and arrested them.
Gamliel was charged with manslaughter, abandoning an injured person after an accident, and driving while intoxicated.
Karni was also charged with abandoning an injured person after an accident. State prosecutors are preparing to go to trial in September.
This week, Rotshtein’s relatives have come forward with a simple request: to remember that behind all the accident figures are human lives.
“It is very important to me that my uncle not become just another statistic,” Ruti Bell told The Jerusalem Post from her home in the United States. Rotshtein was her mother’s brother.
“Shmuel was someone’s husband, father, brother, uncle, friend... He was a good man who didn’t deserve to die like an animal in the road,” said Bell.
Rotshtein arrived in Israel from Poland at age 13 with his parents, brother and sister.
“He went to school, and served his country in the army. He worked hard to be a good provider for his family. He was a very caring and gentle man. He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” his niece said.
His brother, Yeshua, was killed in the War of Attrition with Egypt. His parents have since passed away.
“Shmuel went to the cemetery on a regular basis to clean and take care of his parents’ and brother’s graves. He was a man who valued family and valued life.
Shmuel never asked anyone for anything.
He was just a kind and gentle soul,” Bell said. “Now my mom goes to the cemetery and has to light a candle for every member of her family, her parents and her two dead brothers – one killed tragically defending his country, and the other killed senselessly by an unremorseful drunk driver.”
During questioning, Gamliel claimed Rotshtein had darted out into the street without warning – an argument dismissed by police – and said he had fled the scene after panicking.
“The people of Israel, and all over the world, need to understand that a car is a weapon when the person who gets behind the wheel is drunk or on drugs,” Bell said. “Who knows what could have happened if Gamliel had immediately called for help. Maybe my uncle could have been saved. Instead, Gamliel ran over an innocent man, drove home, and went to bed.”
Bell said only a life sentence would be an appropriate punishment. “It will not bring my uncle back, but maybe the message will save someone else’s life because people will think twice before drinking and driving.”
She added, “I don’t want my uncle’s death to be in vain. I was a prosecutor in New York for six years, and I believe that it is up to the justice system to send a message to people that their crimes matter, that the victims and the victims’ families matter.”
In a statement sent to the Post this week, Traffic Police said that “hit-and-run accidents are a top priority for police, both for traffic safety and moral reasons.”
In most cases, drivers turn themselves in within hours of the accidents, but in some cases, as occurred in Rehovot last year, police reach the driver after gathering forensic evidence and intelligence from the crash scene.
Drivers who don’t turn themselves in usually have “an additional reason to flee the scene, such as being drunk, or driving without a license or insurance,” police added.
“Investigation teams are immediately set up after the accidents and invest large resources in locating the criminal.
Accordingly, in more than 85 percent of cases, the fleeing driver is caught,” police stated.
According to figures made available by Traffic Police, nine people have lost their lives this year so far in hit-and-runs; 11 people were killed in hit-and-runs in 2010.
Police said a general downward trend was discernible in such incidents. In total, 539 hit-and-run accidents were recorded in 2010, a decrease from 659 in 2009. In the past five years, 2006 had the highest hit-and-run rate, with 835 such incidents recorded by police.
Despite this particular decrease, though, some 35% of all accidents involving fatalities are still cases of cars striking pedestrians. As a basis for comparison, the average in Europe is 15%- 17%.
“My uncle deserved a chance to live. He was a good man who deserved better, in life and in death,” Bell said.