Damian, in red, leads a group of cyclists at the 'Finish the Ride' event. (Kevin Ferguson/Only A Game)

Damian Kevitt, in red, leads a group of cyclists at the charity event. (Kevin Ferguson/Only A Game)

It was a cool Sunday morning in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, just across the street from the Zoo. Cyclists crossed the finish line for a charity event called ‘Finish the Ride.’ There were food trucks, live music, a silent auction, but most of crowd was focused on one rider: Damian Kevitt, the guest of honor and organizer.

“It was very nerve-wracking at the very beginning moments, and then at a certain point it just — it all fell together and we’re on the ride, and we’re rolling, and it was beyond exhilarating,” Kevitt said. “It was just awesome. “

I pity him… He’ll never be able to close on that particular incident. 
– Cyclist Damian Kevitt on the driver who hit him and fled

Kevitt, 37, wore his helmet, of course, a red shirt, bike shorts and just below his right knee — a prosthesis.

Damian lost his leg last February. It was a Sunday pretty much like this one, less than a mile from where I spoke with him.

He and his wife had just gotten groceries and were biking around Griffith Park before lunch. There was a huge backup of cars. One of them — a light-colored minivan — swerved into the opposing traffic lane to get ahead. The van collided with Damian.

“The actual impact itself wasn’t that bad,” Kevitt said. “I mean, I saw him a split second beforehand and tried to get out of the way, but I ended up on the hood of his car, briefly. He definitely saw me. There was no way he didn’t see me. He stopped at that point, just enough so that I slid down into the front, right in front of him, and he took off.”

Damian was pinned under the car. He told me he could hear his ribs cracking, that the crash left his ankle “filleted.” And then he blacked out.

The minivan took off. And even though the accident was in broad daylight, none of the onlookers got a license plate number. Damian spent four months in the hospital. The minivan driver hasn’t been caught.

Talk to enough people at ‘Finish the Ride’ and you’ll inevitably hear similar stories. Like Don Ward, who lives in nearby Los Feliz.

“In 2009, I was riding near Echo Park Lake,” Ward said. “And I was signaling to get over to the left turn lane to get up to Sunset. And I’m looking back and I see this car speeding and swerve. I panicked and tried to steer to the right and bail, but I didn’t even have a chance, I mean, I got wiped out. Thrown. I was just lucky enough to have landed with my head facing the left side where the car driver drove around me and managed to get six out of the seven numbers. The guy took off, of course.”

Hit and run crashes have been called an epidemic lately. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency, between 2009 and 2011, deaths from all types of hit-and-run accidents went up 13 percent nationwide. In Los Angeles, 20,000 hit-and-run crashes are reported each year, it’s estimated that about 80 percent of those go unsolved.

If a driver flees the scene of the crash, not only are they unlikely to get caught, but the punishment is usually pretty lenient. The driver who hit Don Ward in 2009 was eventually tracked down. He did 30 days of community service and paid a $500 fine.

California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto wants to change that.

“They’re not treated as seriously as other crimes,” Gatto said. “You know, if you’re driving under the influence, for example, and you’re caught, there’s always a license suspension as part of it. The current bill I have going through the legislature would say that any time a motorist is involved in a hit-and-run accident and flees the scene—and there’s a human being involved; it could be on a bicycle, it could be a pedestrian, or it could be the occupant of another vehicle–that motorist who hits and runs is going to lose his or her license for a minimum of six months.”

Cycling advocates say it’s more than just a sentencing issue. Historically car-centric cities like Los Angeles need a change in mindset.

“Well I mean, I think the main thing is the streets aren’t designed for us,” said Eric Bruins, who works for the LA County Bicycle Coalition. “And so it feels like we’re not welcome there. And drivers get the sense that that [a] cyclist in front of me doesn’t belong there or isn’t supposed to be there and they do just crazy things. They honk, they swerve, they yell, they throw things.”

The city has responded by building bike paths and making streets more friendly for cyclists.

Damian Kevitt says he’ll keep doing as many events like ‘Finish the Ride’ as he can. The goal, he says, is to create a safer city for pedestrians, bicycles and cars, too. He doesn’t want to vilify the drivers who hit-and-run. In fact, he isn’t angry at the driver who hit him.

“I pity him,” Kevitt said. “You know if you think about: OK, I have bounced back and am leading a relatively normal life. I’m missing a leg. I spent months and months in the hospital recovering, so I lost months of my life. But I’m able to bounce back and move forward. This guy — unless he comes forward — he’ll never be able to close on that particular incident. That’s gotta be, probably more painful than what I have to go through.”

Kevitt says the next ‘Finish the Ride’ is in the works, but if you want to see him up and at it again, he’s training to run the Los Angeles Marathon next March.