The story of Sarah Pedersen's loss of a leg to a hit-and-run driver and the lack of police follow-up on the case {Style, Jan. 10} was sad and infuriating, but hardly unique. It was not the first time that the D.C. Police Department has used its Traffic Enforcement Branch to hide, bury or otherwise ignore criminal investigations. And despite what the D.C. Code and some policemen may tell Pedersen, it is unlikely that the investigation of her assault would have been any more vigorous had she been killed.

On Dec. 21, 1986, another 24-year-old, Nancy Gardner, was fatally injured during a robbery at the corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE. While she was waiting for a bus, a car drove up. The man in the passenger seat reached out, snatched her bag and drove off. Gardner was flung to the sidewalk, so violently that her skull fractured. She died the next day.

Her death was obviously a homicide -- she was fatally injured during the commission of a robbery. However, because the crime involved a car, the D.C. police investigation was handled by the Traffic Enforcement Branch as a hit and run -- even though Gardner's injuries showed no indication that she had been struck by the car, even though witnesses described the car as pulling up next to her at the corner and even though the media was reporting the incident as a murder {Metro, Dec. 24, 1986}.

The investigation by traffic bureau officers was cursory at best. No one even interviewed the primary witness to the crime. When Gardner's family asked why no in-depth homicide investigation was being conducted, they were told that higher-ups would not look kindly on a push to move the case into the homicide division, apparently because it would increase the city's burgeoning murder statistics.

After about three weeks of intense lobbying by Gardner's family, the file was finally transferred informally to the homicide division. But by then, any trail left by the murderers was cold.

No one was ever arrested for the murder of Nancy Gardner. The D.C. police did not even officially list her death as a homicide until March of 1988 -- well over a year after it happened, and then only after the intervention of a member of the D.C. Council.

What causes this kind of gross negligence in the handling of criminal investigations? Are police officials more interested in downgrading crimes for the sake of more publicly palatable statistics than they are in investigating them?

It is certainly easier to call Pedersen's maiming a minor traffic infraction and Gardner's murder an accidental hit and run than to investigate them as the crimes that they are.

I hope that the new administration of Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon will see that there are no more cases like Sarah Pedersen's and Nancy Gardner's. No one should have to endure such injustices at the hands of the D.C. Police Department.

-- John Hutchins The writer was a friend of Nancy Gardner.

... But let's make it the last

The automobile incident that caused Sarah Pedersen to lose her leg shows how much we need new laws to regulate the use of automobiles in the metropolitan area.

Victims, like Sarah Pedersen, need protection from impecunious and judgment-proof individuals who now are not held accountable for criminal negligence, even manslaughter. We need a stricter system of compulsory insurance.

First, a minimum insurance should be set. Because juries are awarding substantial amounts, it may need to be as high as $500,000 to $1 million. The insurance could be funded entirely or primarily by drivers or, alternatively, in part by a surcharge, such as the one now imposed on gasoline.

Under a compulsory insurance plan, drivers would be required to produce a certificate from their insurance companies at the time of registration showing that their policies were current at the statutory amounts or more for a full year. The insurance companies would also be required to send the local motor vehicle bureau a copy of the filing and also of any termination of a policy.

The insurance would cover individuals, whether or not they were driving their own cars. If a car was stolen, owners would still be liable if the theft went unreported. If owners of stolen cars reported the loss prior to any accident involving their vehicle or if they could prove that they did not know their car was missing, liability could be covered by the surcharge fund.

Drivers or owners who misrepresent their insurance or insurance coverage, either as to the amount or as to the insurance itself, would be subject to a criminal penalty, including fine and attachment of their personal property. Separate considerations might include special penalties for driving while intoxicated, under the influence of drugs or under a disability that invalidates the driver's license.

-- Harry H. Almond Jr. is a lawyer, who formerly tried claims cases for insurance companies.