The Kindness of Strangers

Last year, a buddy and I were driving to the shooting range when we witnessed a terrible crash on the highway.

We stopped to help, of course. So did other people who were passing by. One man, confusing the steam billowing from the shattered radiator as evidence of fire, even managed to pull the door open from the twisted frame using brute strength alone. (We reached him in time, before he laid hands on the victim, and explained that it was a bad idea.)

Emergency services were called, and the cars passing by slowed down to gawk. Many people pulled over to the side of the road, asking if there was anything they could do. The response was so wide spread that there was a danger that the way would be blocked by the cars of amateur rescuers. I had to station myself next to the road, thanking everyone for their concern, but sending them on their way if they weren’t trained in rescue or medicine.

I was driving alone a few months later when another car accident occurred right in front of me, this time in a residential neighborhood. No injuries or deaths, although the damage to both vehicles was extensive.

I stopped to help, of course, and found the same situation. People driving by would ask if there was anything they could do. Those who lived near by not only phoned the authorities, but they came out of their homes and hustled down the street with first aid kits, bottled water, fire extinguishers and blankets. After determining that I didn’t need to administer first aid, my role became one of thanking the concerned and asking them to keep moving so the police and tow trucks could get through.

Are the people in Columbus, Ohio just more noble people than those living elsewhere? I find that to be impossible to believe.

David Hyman discusses how it always makes the news when people who could save lives stand by and do nothing, but that incidents when people step forward are less well publicized. He is interested in how laws which impose a duty to rescue affect behavior, and so is wondering about the frequency of rescue vs non-rescue.

I think this is going to be very difficult, since I bet there are many times when there is an attempt to rescue when the victim cannot be helped.

Just in my own two direct experiences mentioned above, at least a score of people dropped what they were doing and made good faith attempts to safeguard lives. These attempts were ultimately fruitless because there simply wasn’t anything anyone could do to help. But does anyone think there are records kept of these spontaneous expressions of concern?

It appears to me that Mr. Hyman will be able to find solid data on the number of times witnesses stood by and allowed victims to perish. He will also be able to find out how often a person in distress was rescued by passers by. But I think it is more common by far that average people stepped up to do what they could, and found that there was no hope. There isn’t going to be too much info concerning such incidents.

And that is a great pity.

(Hat tip to Glenn.)

8 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers”

  1. I lived in central Ohio for seven years, and I found that the drivers there were (in general) the most polite that I had ever shared the road with.

  2. A little more than fifteen years ago, when my father and I were driving from San Diego to Albuquerque (along what is now the latest iteration of Route 66) so that I could attend an Air Force NCO Leadership course, we came over a hill about halfway between Barstow and Needles, and saw where a driver had run off the road and flipped his car several times – the driver was still trapped in his car, off on the shoulder of the road. IIRC, there were two long-distance truckers who had pulled over, and woman driving a van, and Dad and I. One of the truckers had called the nearest ambulance/fire rescue, who because we were in the middle of the desert, was at least 45 minutes out. In the mean time, we were all either attempting to calm the driver, who was incoherent, administer first aid through the broken windows, and try and pry the car doors open. Among us we had one trained paramedic (one truck driver) a former Army medic (the other truck-driver) a nurse (the driver of the van) and one former Girl Scout and Self-Aid Buddy-Care instructor (me), several very comprehensive first-aid kits, some fairly serious tools (no Jaws of Life, unfortunately!) … and around us, nothing but several hundred square miles of Mohave desert. I always thought it was significant, how of the first four vehicles who saw the accident and stopped – there were so many able and willing people.

  3. There was a car crash near where I live that was so loud, people heard it a couple of blocks away. I was outside taking care of some dogs when it happened….I got the dogs inside, and then went over to see if I could help. My next-door neighbor also went over. When we got there a few minutes after the event, there were already a dozen people looking after where the people involved in the accident were, and making sure nobody was hurt. My neighbor was a paramedic who volunteered in an ambulance once a week…his services were, thankfully, not needed.

    The main thing I did, lacking most useful skills, was suggest to the kids/teens that they should stay away from the skid marks for when the police came to investigate.

    It feels nice to be in a neighborhood where so many rush to help.

    Columbia, Maryland (between DC and Baltimore), for those that are counting.

  4. I think the fact that it makes news when bystanders do nothing indicates that as a culture we expect bystanders to help. After all, if doing nothing was the expected behavior, it wouldn’t be news.

    Also, you often hear news stories with a casual mention of bystanders assisting although the reporters seldom seek out these people for interviews. Clearly, the media does not think it noteworthy that bystanders help people out.

  5. I remember once we went to San Antonio, I was driving a little 92 vw sedan, I’d replaced the battery before departing from Monterrey, which in this cars is under the back seat and there’s plastic cover to protect it from making contact with the seats rings. As it happened, the guy who replaced the battery forgot to put the plastic cover back on its place and I didn’t notice it.
    When we arrived to San Antonio we were hungry and went into a Pizza Hut, as we sat at a table and ordered our pizza, my car caught fire (because of a shortcut of the battery with the rear seat). Some boy cried out that there was a car in fire in the parking lot, you never think it is your car when you hear something like.
    I managed to get the fire extinguisher from under the hood of the vw. All kinds of people came to help me, clients who were eating, passerbiers, the pizza hut staff and the manager, other pulled their cars over next to the parking lot and got their extinguishers and helped me put the fire off. We were so amazed at the people’s reaction, we’ve never seen anything like that before. The ambulance, firetruck and police arrived quickly.
    The Police were demanding my insurance and license, I had left my insurance back home and could not provide it and I was calling back to Mexico from my mobile trying to get someone to get my insurance policy number. The police wanted to get my car to the police station or somewhere, they were giving some kind of traffic violation tickets and being quite rude with me.
    But the manager of the pizza hut came out and discussed with the policemen, he told them since my car was in his parking lot they could not take it without his authorization, and he told them that none there had any claims for damages in anyway and that it was illegal for them to even try to give me a ticket for the whole thing had occurred in private property. The policemen finally left, of course, I had to listen to their long sermon first.

    The manager told us to have our pizza which was getting a bit cold. We really loved him and everyone else who helped us that day.

  6. A young friend of my daughter’s was killed last December when she and her boyfriend stopped at the scene of an accident and she was attempting to assist a young woman who had been thrown out of the car involved in the first accident. This was on the 55 freeway in Orange County. She was hit and killed instantly by a drunk driver who rear ended another car that had stopped. The girl was 22 and a nursing student at U of Indiana, I believe. Her father was a fire captain and a friend (another fire captain) had to come to the house at midnight to break the news to the parents.

  7. Here in Korea, the first rule for the passerby is, don’t do anything. If you touch anyone at the scene of an accident, you are liable. It’s one of the first things that Western foreigners are told when they come to live here.

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