The Morality of Hit and Run
November 12, 2012 3:25 PM   Subscribe

What's the moral argument against running away from an accident if the victim's being cared for (aside from insurance issues)?

I'm catching up on "Homeland" (warning: extremely minor spoiler ahead), and just watched the episode with the hit-and-run accident. The driver says that since the victim was being assisted by someone else, and 911 was obviously being called, he saw no reason to identify himself and be involved.

My first reaction was "what a jerk". But as I ponder it, I'm wondering....what is the basis for the moral compulsion to self-identify if (big "if") the victim's already being looked after?

Is it an insurance issue? If so, I could suggest scenarios (e.g. accidents in a no-fault state) which eliminate that factor, but my moral compass still says it'd be wrong. But...why, exactly? My head can't account for my gut on this.
posted by Quisp Lover to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He was driving recklessly. If you live in a society long enough, you get used to the idea that you get punished if you do something wrong. If you tend to think in terms of honesty and accountability, then you'll probably at least feel morally compelled to take your punishment if you deserve it.
posted by chrillsicka at 3:29 PM on November 12, 2012

Even in no-fault states, serious injuries can result in lawsuits (or at least mini-torts), so one answer would be that the driver needs to identify himself for liability reasons for the victim.

Another reason is that the driver doesn't know that the victim is being taken care of. Perhaps the bystander can't do anything (perhaps no phone, no ability to help the victim, or no English capability). Perhaps 911 isn't going to help (perhaps there's a traffic jam, perhaps the city has no cash to fund emergency services, perhaps the ambulance broke down).

A less moral reason and more ethical reason is I think that people should acknowledge when they do wrong to another person, and hit and runs fundamentally violate that.
posted by saeculorum at 3:30 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I didn't see the episode. Did he cause the accident? If so he's responsible, whether the victim is being tended or not. If the victim dies, he has just committed murder in most states.
posted by ubiquity at 3:31 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're avoiding responsibility for your actions.

If there is something you need to answer for, and you can't know for sure that there isn't, you're making it hard to be held to account. Whether that's giving details for insurance or being charged with a crime. It's highly unlikely that a real human being would act that way from any motive other than an impulse to flee and avoid unpleasant consequences.

Even if you had pressing reasons not to wait - say you're ironically enough a doctor on the way to handle an emergency - I would respect you for at least stopping and leaving your details.

The only time I wouldn't think less of you for not stopping, and for all I know this applies in the show, is if you would be put in grave danger by the mere act of you stopping and identifying yourself. Are you fleeing pursuit by an assassin? Are you a public figure in a hostile place where you're liable to be lynched if recognized? Ok, then I may allow that if no one else's life seems to be in danger, you're justified in not risking your own. Otherwise, it's pretty much a long way from ok to not stop.
posted by philipy at 3:41 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Cared for" involves more than just the immediate practical matter of whether 911 has been called. Part of caring for someone you hit is sticking around to identify yourself and to provide any useful information (after consultation with your attorney and/or insurance company) to those investigating the accident. Even in a no-fault state, you still need to identify yourself, demonstrate that you actually have insurance, and may still be responsible for the accident, especially if you were drunk or driving recklessly. Society investigates these things, both in the interest of justice and to improve traffic safety for all. Even if you're perfectly innocent (and that's not for you to decide at the accident scene), you're wasting police resources when they have to try to track you down later because you didn't stay to identify yourself.

Another factor is the emotional side of things for the person getting hit. Going forward, it's likely more traumatic for someone if they were simply hit out of the blue by some unidentified stranger who sped off than if they know that "Joe Smith" was distracted with screaming kids in the backseat, and so he didn't break in time and rear-ended you. Just putting a name and identity to the person who hit you can help the victim move on.

Finally, who are the bystanders "caring for" the victim as you speed away? As the person who hit someone, you have the moral responsibility to provide aid. It seems rather inappropriate to delegate that responsibility to the kind strangers who, unlike you, didn't cause the accident. It's certainly not a problem if someone else calls 911 because they were able to do so first, but you can't fulfill that moral responsibility to care for your victim if you don't even stick around.
posted by zachlipton at 3:46 PM on November 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

First, let's prune away all the factors that don't necessarily apply. Say you've not been reckless and you weren't intoxicated, plus you live in a no fault state so the victim's insurer would pay.

As for "one should claim responsibility for one's actions", yeah, I have that sense in my gut. But I don't see how it necessarily helps the victim (again, let's prune the obvious possibilities from this scenario). Plus, it's circular. "You should take responsibility because one should take responsibility."

Zachlipton, re: emotional closure, I've been in only one accident resulting in an injury - an older woman stepped suddenly off the curb while I was backing into a parking space at very low speed. She claimed I hit her HAND (think about it). No outward sign of injury, but she went into a tizzy. And I can assure you that she, and her family were in no way comforted emotionally by knowing my identity. They were really quite irate. I don't think I quite accept the emotional closure argument. But the rest of your points help. Yet my head still lags behind my gut.
posted by Quisp Lover at 3:55 PM on November 12, 2012

How do you know "the victim was being assisted by someone else" if you are running away? Maybe the victim was trying to get away from an abusive husband behind her in a second car and he is "assisting" her. What if the victim is being robbed by the two people "assisting" her. Maybe the person assisting her can't stand the sight of blood and passes out as you run away. Maybe the car catches fire and the person assisting isn't strong enough to pull the victim free. Maybe the person assisting is hit and killed by a passing car (happened just recently.)

You don't know if you are running away.
posted by leafwoman at 4:05 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The moral necessity of "claiming responsibility" for one's actions isn't contingent on its being helpful to the victim.

It's not circular, either: we should take responsibility for our actions because it is in fact impossible to escape their consequences. To practice "avoiding" the consequences of one's actions is harmful to you; it cultivates a belief that one's actions have no consequences (or none which must be recognized, or that consequences are subject to convenience or preference). Not only is this belief untrue (and therefore harmful to the holder of the view), but it sets you up to harm yourself or others in future situations, since you've practiced underestimating the cause-and-effect relationship between your actions and their consequences.

Further, such behavior and beliefs, or the acceptance of such stances, harm others because they encourage others to behave similarly. Children who observe this will repeat it; conformist adults will do so as well. Families and societies which encourage responsibility-averse behavior will suffer from the tendency.
posted by eyesontheroad at 4:19 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

And I can assure you that she, and her family were in no way comforted emotionally by knowing my identity. They were really quite irate. I don't think I quite accept the emotional closure argument.

If you hurt someone, you owe them an apology, even if the injury was accidental, and even if they aren't gracious about accepting your apology at the time. Imagine how irate that family would have been if you'd just driven away.

I was hit by a car this past Valentine's Day (the full account of the accident is here). Yes, my first reaction after getting knocked down by a car was to pick myself off the payment, stagger over to the car, and scream something very rude at the driver, but that was my immediate reaction.

I soon calmed down, and I bear no grudge against the guy who hurt me because he showed concern and regret for what he'd done to me. I had people urging me to sue for damages, and I did not. My injuries were quite minor (a scraped knee, feeling quite stiff and sore for a week, and some bad bruising that took about three months to heal completely) and it didn't seem worthwhile to go to the expense and trouble of a lawsuit for the kind of compensation I'd get for that. But if the guy had pulled a hit and run, damn straight I would have sued. I would have made his life a living hell (the second thing I did after screaming at him was to stand in front of the car, whip out a pen and a memo pad and take down his licence plate number). He owed it to me to make amends for what he did, even if it was an accident, and if he hadn't had the integrity to make amends by stopping, showing concern for me, and taking responsibility for his mistake and its effect on me, then I would have forced him to make amends monetarily.
posted by orange swan at 4:26 PM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah I'm not sure I fully buy the emotional closure argument myself, but it seems like it could apply in at least some cases. I'm thinking of the difference between someone being randomly struck by lightning and someone getting zapped because the power company failed to inspect and maintain its transformer in a safe condition. Your physical condition is the same either way, but the second victim has some person or entity to blame.

As irate as the woman and her family was in your experience, I could well imagine them being even more irate if you didn't stop. At least now they might think of you as "that Quisp Lover jerk who wasn't looking and backed into a sweet old lady" (not saying you're actually a jerk!) instead of: "What has happened to society today? People run into little old ladies and drive away leaving them to lie there in the gutter! In my day people at least took responsibility for their actions."
posted by zachlipton at 4:32 PM on November 12, 2012

Among other reasons upthread, there may be external reasons for the accident which need to be investigated, such as poorly designed intersections, improper snow treatment, traffic light timing issues, etc. Both drivers can provide useful information that will assist in rectifying these problems to prevent future accidents.
posted by epanalepsis at 4:34 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because you did it, it's your fault, and therefore your responsibility. Isn't this really obvious?
posted by Decani at 4:48 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

eyesontheroad has the bulk of it, as far as I'm concerned.

Our actions do not only affect ourselves; they affect others, and they even affect the community as a whole, of which we are members. As such, our own opinion about whether we have done harm is not the only one that matters.

Fleeing an accident violates the trust of the community, and trust is essential to maintaining a community's health. Thus, even if no physical harm was done to the person who was hit, harm is done by fleeing. It's an antisocial act in the most literal sense: An act against society.
posted by perspicio at 4:54 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This isn't directly to the "moral" issue but it gets at it sideways:

Fleeing from the scene of a traffic collision where injuries occurred is a serious crime. It's a felony in most U.S. states, meaning you're looking at 1-5 years imprisonment as a possible punishment. In addition, you're looking at cancellation or revocation of your driver's license and most probable cancellation of your insurance policy.

Penalties and consequences are similarly severe in essentially all other countries--some examples here.

The penalties for being involved in a collision, even if you caused it pretty egregiously, are almost always far, far lower than for hit and run. This is going to be true unless you were, like, deliberately trying to murder someone with your car. (In fact, penalties for absurdly dangerous driving are absurdly low in most countries, especially the U.S.--but that's a rant for another day.)

So as a practical matter, unless you're absolutely sure there is no possible way to identify you or your vehicle, your best practical course of action is to stop and identify yourself, because you're subjecting yourself to very low penalties and avoiding very, very high penalties.

And if you know that someone is there to help the victim then you can assume that person saw you, your vehicle, and can provide a description and maybe even a partial or full plate number. So the huge penalty for hit and run plus the probability of actually being caught and receiving that penalty argues pretty strongly for going back and identifying yourself.

So that is the practical argument.

As for the moral argument, I'll only say that there is some relationship between our legal code and our moral code.

Many things are immoral yet legal. But pretty much everything that is illegal--especially at the felony level--is also grossly and pretty obviously immoral.

I won't try to give a lengthy explanation of what, particularly, is immoral about hit-and-run right now but people around the world treat it as a serious moral and legal issue with very serious penalties so I'm pretty sure it won't take too much thinking to figure out why that is. You might start by imagining if there were no laws or penalties re: hit and run and how that would affect others, our society, and the general respect for the rules of the road that make driving possible.
posted by flug at 6:01 PM on November 12, 2012

Relevant to the situation in Homeland (SPOILERS AHEAD):

In this case, wasn't it a pedestrian in the alley who was struck, not a car? There's no reason to assume that this woman has health insurance, and having just experienced a hospitalization WITH health insurance, I can certainly attest that even with insurance, the cost of health care in the U.S. can be enormous. Even if I'm remembering wrong and the woman hit was in a car, I would have to imagine that many people do not carry car insurance that covers 100% of their own personal injuries in the case of a car accident.

So, even if we're only talking about this from a monetary point of view, it is wrong to leave the accident scene because you are putting a potentially large and credit-ruining financial burden on someone else for an injury you caused. This is particularly true in the situation portrayed in Homeland, where the VP's son has access to basically unlimited financial resources, while the woman he hit is later portrayed as someone who probably has limited financial resources (she's a single mom, anyway). After she dies, the daughter will potentially have no resources, end up in foster care, etc. since she tells Dana she'll be all alone. Even aside from the fact that the VP's son is currently escaping arrest for murder or manslaughter, he should be responsible for providing something financially to the daughter to help her survive.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:32 PM on November 12, 2012

"Plus, it's circular. "You should take responsibility because one should take responsibility." "

One thing that social contract theory (of ethics) touches on is the idea that when we obey laws/rules, we develop a tendency to obey them. When we disobey them, we develop a tendency to disobey. It's a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle: the more law-abiding a society is, the more law-abiding it is likely to be. It is circular, but it's also true. That's why we don't like to make stupid laws that everyone disobeys, because it gets them used to disobeying the law. And that's why it's a good thing to do the "right" thing even when it doesn't matter, because it gets us in the habit of doing it when it DOES matter. This social contract idea underlies a lot of what people are saying when they say you have a responsibility to society and that doing the right thing is important in and of itself, etc.

(One of the classic examples of this kind of obey-the-rules conditioning is sitting a red light in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere with no traffic and a flat clear view for a mile in every direction. Most of us just sit there and wait for the light to change, and feel an actual aversion to disobeying the light. Which is a GOOD thing because at a busy intersection we definitely want everyone to be in the habit of obeying the light!)

From a selfish standpoint as the driver -- I have a friend who was involved in an accident where he was quite clearly not at fault: a pedestrian was actually pushed in front of my friend's car too late for my friend to avoid the accident, and the pedestrian died. The trauma of having been the driver in that situation was considerable, but reflecting on it, it would have been massively compounded had he fled the scene. Not only would you live in fear of being identified and brought to justice, but not knowing what happened to the pedestrian or that you did everything you could would have made it even harder for him to deal with than it already was. While the aftermath of the accident was very difficult for my friend (who was totally cleared of any criminal or civil fault) -- he was breathalyzered and drug tested, spent several hours with the police, had his windshield shattered by the accident, had blood stains on the car -- it was thorough and complete and closed the situation for him. It took him time to get over it and cope, but it would have taken far more time if he hadn't dealt with the accident when it happened.

"Many things are immoral yet legal. But pretty much everything that is illegal--especially at the felony level--is also grossly and pretty obviously immoral."

I don't think this is true. Elle Woods has something to say about malum in se versus malum prohibitum.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

First, let's prune away all the factors that don't necessarily apply. Say you've not been reckless...

Based on your own judgment? You're a biased judge of that and so you don't have the right to decide on your own that you weren't reckless and have no moral or legal liability or responsibility. If you were involved in causing harm to someone, you have the obligation to own up to your actions and allow for a fair assessment of whether you were at fault. (If it turns out you weren't, great, but you don't get to just decide that and disappear.)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:35 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

First, let's prune away all the factors that don't necessarily apply. Say you've not been reckless...

Based on your own judgment?

It's exactly this. It is not your job to determine whether you were at fault, for all kinds of good reasons. Though they may not be perfect, there are mechanisms in place intended to do this, and, for obvious reasons, they require you to stick around and participate. Everything else that follows (criminal charges or the lack thereof, insurance claims, civil liability, etc., etc.) depend on the outcome of this process, and if you elect not to participate by leaving, you derail the systems we use to deal with the aftermath of an accident. This is why leaving is a felony.
posted by pullayup at 9:13 PM on November 12, 2012

Well, to be the devil's advocate, I think most to these answers miss the gist of the op’s question. Not to put words in Quisp’s mouth, but I believe the question is if you could hypothetically know that no harm would come to the victim, physical, financial, emotional…do you need to take your medicine because you need to take your medicine. The arguments that you need to stick around to give your info, or you waste valuable police resources miss the point; if none of those things are a factor, do you need to fess up because you need to fess up, I believe it is circular.

Pose the question another way. You come out of a restaurant and as you’re pulling out of the lot, you accidently hit David Koch’s unoccupied car and dent it. You think, hmm..I stay and take responsibility and my insurance rates are going up which I can’t afford, and it doesn’t mean anything to him. So in this instance, is putting a note on Dave’s car with your name and number necessarily the right thing to do, and if so, why necessarily? It’s going to have a negative effect on you and none on him.

Do we need to be honest for honesty’s sake in an absolute sense? To all the people up thread that talk about how society runs better when we take responsibility, do you all pay 100% of your taxes, or do you take liberties, no matter how small. We all benefit when everyone pays all their taxes. Do you tell your auto insurer that your kid takes the car to college some weekends, or that you really commute 25 miles to work and not 10 like you put on the application? Because if you don’t it’s insurance fraud and you’re not paying for the service you’re getting, which is theft. We’d all pay lower rates with greater general honesty. So it’s really not as black and white as everyone is making it out to be.

I certainly agree that things run a lot more smoothly when we stick to agreed upon mores, but I think there’s a fair amount of latitude even for those who think of themselves as law-abiding solid citizens. Consistently driving 10 miles an hour above the speed limit is not hit and run, but does have safety consequences. Most of us pick and choose just how moral we’re going to be, especially when there’s no chance of being caught or it’s just inconvenient.
posted by PaulBGoode at 12:01 AM on November 13, 2012

Ok PaulBGoode, forget all the social contract/obedience to authority arguments and let's go back to the Golden Rule. If you got hit in the street by a car, even assuming other bystanders called 911, would you prefer that the person who hit you stops and takes some kind of responsibility (and I don't even mean responsibility in the legal sense of liability, but simply the moral responsibility of acknowledging what happened) or speeds off, leaving you to lie in the street?

Even in cases where it doesn't make a lick of difference, I think that most people would prefer living in the world where the driver stops to the one where he/she doesn't. You stop at the scene of an accident you caused because people generally like it when you apologize to them and check on their welfare after you have harmed them in an accident and they generally get quite angry when someone hurts them, even accidentally, and can't be bothered to stop.

This particular hypothetical isn't about the broad societal effects of taking small liberties on your taxes or misstating your mileage for your auto insurance or speeding on the highway. This situation is about an individual driver who has hit another person on the road. Even outside the social and legal frameworks of laws and insurance and liability, the driver owes something to the person he/she hit on an individual human level.

It also might be interesting to consider some of the early (i.e. Old Testament) biblical traditions of Cities of Refuge and protections for the perpetrators of accidental manslaughter. While the primary purpose was to avoid being killed in revenge by the victim's family, even this early moral code requires that the perpetrator make his way to a designated refuge, give a full account of what has happened to the city elders, and, depending which text you read, possibly stand trial before being granted asylum. These modern legal customs aren't recent legislative whims, but are pretty well rooted in quite old social laws.
posted by zachlipton at 12:44 AM on November 13, 2012

My husband was hit by a car a couple of years ago and knocked off his bike. It was actually really important to him that the guy stopped and took responsibility immediately as soon as it happened, even though my husband was generally OK and was really angry and basically just stormed off. Because the fact that the guy stopped and apologised and also owned up to the police and paid reparation money shows that he knows that what he did was wrong and dangerous, which means he's less likely to do it again.

And honestly, that last part, knowing the guy is going to drive more carefully in future, was the main outcome we wanted from this whole thing. Maybe he'll even talk to his friends about it and how much he upset and hurt my husband and how annoying it all was to deal with for everyone involved and maybe his friends will also drive more carefully for at least a while. Compare that to a hypothetical guy that saw my husband get up and start walking around so just drove off. He'll keep speeding through that part of road because even if you hit someone there are no bad consequences so why be careful? That guy is more likely to kill someone next time.

Taking responsibility for your actions leads to a better society in all kinds of ways. Just because the results aren't immediate and easy to see doesn't mean they aren't there so yeah, you should take responsibility because you should take responsibility because it's the right thing to do for everyone.
posted by shelleycat at 1:15 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Say you've not been reckless and you weren't intoxicated, plus you live in a no fault state so the victim's insurer would pay.

The victim's insurer would pay for a certain amount of medical care. The victim will be on the hook for any amount beyond that when their no-fault benefits are terminated. So, even if a driver hit a pedestrian on the steps of the best emergency room in the country, in a no-fault state, it is impossible for the driver to determine in that moment that the victim is going to be cared for.

When someone takes responsibility for their actions, they are also taking responsibility for the long-term consequences that may or may not be apparent in the moment.
posted by inertia at 7:05 AM on November 13, 2012

Yeah, no-fault injury protection isn't limitless, is why. By failing to identify yourself, you're potentially sticking the victim with a huge medical bill.
posted by KathrynT at 9:03 AM on November 13, 2012

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