I could not stop for death.
June 3, 2007 7:21 AM   Subscribe

I saw a terrible accident and did not stop to help. Was this wrong?

I did not see what caused the accident, only saw it after it began. I did not stop because it was clear that everyone was dead (which was confirmed by newspapers later) and the crashing vehicle hit no other car. The accident was so bad that it was clear that no on would survive. No other cars were hit. I did not stop, but did call 911.

I did not stop because it was clear everyone was dead. This was a terrible accident, something you might see in a movie for maximum dramatic affect. Bodies flew from the car. Me stopping would have done nothing except gotten me involved in something I could not fix and made a long journey even longer. I made this decision without a few seconds of seeing the crash, in a very cold fashion i.e. people die everyday, there is nothing I could have done, move on.

So, ethnically and morally, was I wrong not stop? If so, what could I have done if I had stopped, when it was clear that everyone was dead and I didn't see what 'caused the accident.
posted by The Behatted Wild Man of Greenfield to Human Relations (74 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
When you drove by, were there other drivers that stopped to assist? If so, no issue for driving by in my opinion.
posted by strangelove at 7:25 AM on June 3, 2007

Honestly, you should have stopped, and you know it, and you feel bad about it and are trying to justify it to yourself. Even to the point of posting a question here so that you can get some responses that agree with you to assuage your guilt.
posted by smackfu at 7:27 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you should have stopped. Even if you couldn't have saved a life, you were still a witness. Despite not having seen the initial cause, you still might have been able to provide the police with some information.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:32 AM on June 3, 2007

Yeah, it was wrong. You have no idea whether or not that accident was fatal--people have pulled through terrible stuff before and that accident could have been one of them. You're not a doctor and you could not have offered medical treatment, but on the off-chance, the slightest off-chance you could have done something you should have stopped.

Kudos for calling 911, at least.
posted by schroedinger at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2007

Yes you should have stopped. Even if you couldn't provide medical assistance - you may have been able to comfort someone had they survived.
posted by gomichild at 7:35 AM on June 3, 2007

I agree with smackfu but give yourself a break - your flight or fight response kicked in and you probably automatically chose flight because consciously or subconsciously you didn't feel you could cope with it.
I hope you never see anything like that again, but if you do, and there's no-one else on the scene, commit yourself today to doing the right thing and stopping.
posted by razzman at 7:36 AM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Assuming that no one else had stopped to help, then yes, you should have stopped. It's possible that the people there didn't die immediately, and if you'd stopped, you could have ensured that they didn't die alone. If someone else had already stopped, you're in the clear.

But I also think you should cut yourself some slack.
posted by craichead at 7:37 AM on June 3, 2007

If you didn't see the cause, what help could you have been? 'Yeah officer, I saw bodies flying everywhere, it was crazy'. That doesn't help them. If it truly was a horrific crash where nobody could have possibly survived, which is conceivable, then all you could get for yourself is some potential therapy issues for wading into a grisly car crash scene. Don't let people guilt you about not stopping. Of course there is always going to be someone who says you should have stopped, but it was your call and you made it. You called 911. You didn't stop, you probably won't ever be in the exact same situation again, there is nothing you could gain from questioning whether you are a bad person now.
posted by dino terror at 7:39 AM on June 3, 2007

It was great you called 911, at least; some people wouldn't have bothered with even that. But I do think you should have stopped - particularly if no one else had stopped yet.

what could I have done if I had stopped

If nothing else, you might have comforted the dying. What a blessing that could be to someone gasping out their life alone. And, honestly, keeping someone from moving their head, or even applying a towel and pressure to bleeding wounds, are fairly simple things anyone can do in that kind of situation that might turn out to be very helpful.
posted by mediareport at 7:39 AM on June 3, 2007

Sorry, I didn't mean to be so harsh. You probably should have stopped, but I don't know that I would have stopped either. It's so easy to drive on, and so hard to stop.
posted by smackfu at 7:41 AM on June 3, 2007

You called 911. You notified the proper authorities who are trained to handle situations like this. You feel guilty, but what could you really have done? Are you an EMT? Would your presence on the scene have benefited anybody?

I think you responded appropriately.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:42 AM on June 3, 2007

I wonder why you didn't stop...

But, if I take you at your word, and you are 100% sure no one could've made it (and I mean 100%, not 99%), then stopping would have added nothing practical to the situation. In this sense you did nothing immoral.

However, for your own good, you might have been better off. It seems you feel a bit guilty or insecure now, at least on some level. Your callous personality might have benefited from putting a human face on tragedy - I don't mean this in a morbid way - but phrases like "people die every day" make it seem like you are alienated.

In any event, I don't see any reason to feel guilty for this.
posted by mateuslee at 7:42 AM on June 3, 2007

only saw it after it began

Oh yeah, *and* you were a witness, perhaps the only witness, to at least part of the event. Telling yourself you didn't see the actual start of the accident is a cop-out. You should have stayed until the police arrived.
posted by mediareport at 7:42 AM on June 3, 2007

Imagine that someone did survive. Imagine that you meet them in a year's time. Now imagine trying to convince them that you did the right thing.
posted by rjt at 7:52 AM on June 3, 2007

You may have seen bodies outside the car, but unless the car was completely compacted to smaller than the size of a baby seat I probably would have stopped and checked it out, just in case. I'm not a doctor and I know there wouldn't be much I could do to help and I know it would be a grisly scene that would probably give me nightmares, but I think I would feel obligated anyway.
posted by Tuwa at 7:52 AM on June 3, 2007

Also, if somehow you saw this occur, and you stopping yourself could have put yet more people in danger due to the locale, I think calling 911 is better - than say, nothing, or a 50 car pileup.

I have also seen really seriously unsafe objects on a major highway here in town - which I then called 911 about - because my little honda is really not equipped to tell the masses "ok everybody, I'm stopping here in the middle of the highway to move this huge-ass ladder I nearly ran over"
posted by bitterkitten at 7:54 AM on June 3, 2007

You did nothing wrong. Stopping would've just meant looking at the wreckage and gawking.
posted by thelongcon at 8:02 AM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

This question has been considered by many courts over the years. In general, the conclusion they have come to is that there is no legal duty to stop and render aid, even if you can do so with no risk to yourself.

Journalists even claim as a general rule that they have an ethical duty NOT to render aid - to report on an event, not participate in it, even if they could save lives by participating. See for example here.

So I think you have no legal or ethical duty to render aid. This in no way is a statement that you *should not* do so, only that you *need not* have done so.
posted by jellicle at 8:04 AM on June 3, 2007

Another thing is people die of their internal injuries often in crashes. If you saw someone that looked fine, maybe you would have been inclined to move them or something, which not being an EMT I can't say whether that would be a good idea. You could just as easily have hurt someone or yourself by stopping rather than help someone. The only thing a citizen should be doing in a major car crash is saying to authorities what happened. You are not wanted or expected to be flailing around trying to revive people. You didn't see the cause, which is not a cop out as someone alluded to. Of course you notice when a car is tumbling end over end, but you may not have seen what caused that. I can personally vouch for that.
posted by dino terror at 8:05 AM on June 3, 2007

I'm going to take you at your word, which was "I did not stop because it was clear that everyone was dead" ---

No, you did not do anything wrong. Nor are you callous, as someone upthread said. (Callous people don't come to AskMe and writing conscience-searching questions asking for other people's opinions about the morality of their actions.)
posted by jayder at 8:07 AM on June 3, 2007

Best answer: In our first aid certification course we learned that the first thing to decide before approaching the scene of an emergency is...

Is it safe to do so?

Shortly after that we were taught that we also leanred that:

Unless we had a parent/child or teacher/student or contractualy type relationship with the persons injured, we were never required to stop and render aid. In calling 911 you did a lot more than many others would.

For you, it appears the answer to question #1 was, at that moment, No. You don't tell us that it would have been safe or unsafe to stop your vehicle, but you don't sound like you would have been in any way equipped to deal with that you might have seen.

Now, you should go get yourself first aid certified so that if anything else of this nature arises you will be more likely to have an answer for yourself. You would know what you might be able to accomplish, physically and mentally.

ps, I drove past a terrible motorcycle accident just after new years day 2006 and it still haunts me that I didn't stop. I was certified, and I probably could have pulled over and been helpful. Nick was in the car with me, and I asserted then that it wasn't safe for me to pull over, but it's in the past now.
posted by bilabial at 8:08 AM on June 3, 2007

Probably because the inclusion of this remark "made a long journey even longer" does sound callous.
posted by gomichild at 8:08 AM on June 3, 2007

I personally can not ever imagine not stopping if I saw something this horrible. To drive away would be pretty cold.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:11 AM on June 3, 2007

You committed a crime by not stopping (well, at least by law in my state). And yes, what you did was very morally wrong.
posted by Sufi at 8:12 AM on June 3, 2007

Journalists even claim as a general rule that they have an ethical duty NOT to render aid

The point of the article you link is that many, if not most, journalists *do not* claim that as a general rule, but rather grapple with the complexities of the reporter/assister relationship in their own way in each difficult situation.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 AM on June 3, 2007

You shouldn't beat yourself up over this, and no, I don't think you're callous. You called 911, and I doubt you would have been in a position to anything more useful than that. When faced with an incredibly traumatic situation, instinct takes over and the things we do might not make sense and sometimes they are not "decisions," exactly. Some people can cope with this kind of situation and some people just can't, and by extension, would not be particularly helpful. Good job calling 911; you did what you could.

(Many years ago, a car hit the median and flipped over about 20 feet in front of our car. We did stop, and called 911, but it was clear we couldn't do much. The strange thing is that I started to laugh uncontrollably . . . there was nothing funny about the situation, and I didn't THINK it was funny so I couldn't understand why I was laughing; it was like my body was just acting on its own in response to a situation I couldn't quite process. This is just to say that you don't know how you'll react to something like this until you're right in the middle of it.)
posted by agent99 at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2007

The only time to assume someone is dead is when their head has been removed from their body. (A cop once told me that was the only condition under which a patrolman could pronounce someone dead. Makes sense to me so I never questioned it.)

I've come across some pretty nasty accidents and saw shit I never wanted to see. Last time I was running up to a car on fire with obvious blood all over the windows thinking to myself "I hope this isn't gonna be nasty." It was. It left me shaking for hours afterwards. Some shit you just have to deal with.

Should you have stopped? Of course. You'd want someone to stop for you. It's not much more complicated than that.
posted by three blind mice at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2007

what could I have done if I had stopped...

My mother, grandmother and I stopped for a man who'd run his car headlong into a huge oak tree. He was completely unconscious, he was very large, he was very compressed into the car. We tried to get him out, but we couldn't; we couldn't get anyone else to stop to help and the car caught fire before the emergency response arrived.

That's a hopeless, helpless moment, but later, when we read the newspaper account that he hit the tree and burst immediately into flames and burned alive, we had a chance to find his wife, to reassure her that that's not how it happened, and he didn't suffer, and he wasn't alone. And that's the kind of thing you could have done if you'd stopped, even if the victims were already lost.

That said. It's done. It hurts your heart and gnaws your conscience. Next time you'll stop. That's the little good that comes out of this, so stop struggling against it and go in peace.
posted by headspace at 8:30 AM on June 3, 2007

Well, I don't know how it works in your country of origin, but in Finland you just broke the law. Not stopping to assist is a criminal offense.

I'm sorry you had to witness something as terrible as that, but you had an obligation to stop and find out if anyone needed your help.

Unless they all died on impact, you might have been able to do something. As was mentioned above, people have survived some pretty horrific things and there is no way you could tell that they were definitely dead from your car.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:31 AM on June 3, 2007

mediareport: you should read the article more closely. All of the journalistic authorities cited claim that there is an ethical duty NOT to participate in the event (and then discuss their reservations and conflicting feelings about that ethical duty, and under what circumstances they might disobey it).
posted by jellicle at 8:31 AM on June 3, 2007

I like how people are saying 'You broke the law! (well, in my country)'. Yeah, if it isn't the law where the poster is they didn't break the law. It's as if you're trying to make the person feel guilty.
posted by dino terror at 8:40 AM on June 3, 2007

What smackfu and razzman said.

You made a decision. You have no idea whether you could have helped or have hurt the situation. To be the best of my knowledge, you are not a paramedic. You are not medically trained. Sure, you could have been there to make sure that someone didn't "die alone." But it that really your responsiblity? Would it have been nice if you could have done that for someone? Sure, of course it could. Are you required? I don't think so.

You saw the wreck. You decided you could do nothing to help. You did, however, call 911, which is exactly what I would have done. I'm not a medically trained professional. I would have called 911 too, because what would I have done if I had stopped? Stood there and panicked? I would have been of no use to anyone. Hell, I could have made the situation worse by moving someone in my panic and injuring them further.

It's a grey area of morality, and everyone has their own views on the matter.

However, the fact that you think it would have been an inconvenience to you and THAT is why you didn't stop sounds terrible. I can see thinking it, perhaps, but that would be quite a secondary issue.

Imagine that someone did survive. Imagine that you meet them in a year's time. Now imagine trying to convince them that you did the right thing.

What? More like "Imagine him trying to tell you what you could have done to help him." Nothing. You could have called 911, and that's about it. Like I said, to the best of my knowledge, you weren't trained to handle this type of situation and you more likely than not could not have helped improve it. You did the right thing by calling those who could.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:41 AM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

There was nothing morally objectionable about your behavior.
posted by amber_dale at 8:44 AM on June 3, 2007

I can't imagine what you must have felt like seeing that. I witnessed a non-fatal accident some years ago and it haunted me for a while, and made driving a nervous experience. If the accident was as bad as you say... argh. I'm sorry for you. You might want to consider counseling to deal with this. It just sounds so awful, and then to have to deal with the guilt of not stopping... Good luck to you.
posted by amtho at 8:49 AM on June 3, 2007

I'm going to say that we have no idea what the right move was there. I think only those who have experienced such horror can really know.

This means you do know whether it was right or wrong. Spend some quality time thinking about it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:53 AM on June 3, 2007

The 911 operator certainly would have told you if you were legally requred to stop, and calling 911 also gave the authorities a way to get in contact with you if your testimony was needed.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2007

You should have stopped. But look at it this way: the story's not over. Your guilt will hopefully induce you to get some certification so next time you'll not only stop, but might help.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I like how people are saying 'You broke the law! (well, in my country)'. Yeah, if it isn't the law where the poster is they didn't break the law. It's as if you're trying to make the person feel guilty.

Didn't know what the law was in his neck of the woods, so I provided an independent datapoint and the potential consideration that morals and ethics aside, it can be illegal to drive away from an accident. And considering the loose definitions of what is moral and ethical, my definition of the posters question is 'should I feel guilty'. My answer is yes.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2007

there is nothing I could have done

I wasn't there, I can't tell you that that's true or not, but your thinking there is on the right track. If there was nothing you could have done then there was no reason to stop. The only question to ask is whether you can really know that without getting out of your car.

In my heart I think I'd probably have done the same as you.
posted by muteh at 8:57 AM on June 3, 2007

mediareport: you should read the article more closely. All of the journalistic authorities cited claim that there is an ethical duty NOT to participate in the event (and then discuss their reservations and conflicting feelings about that ethical duty, and under what circumstances they might disobey it).

(Response by journalist fiance)
Actually, the article gives many points of view, as evidenced by this quote:

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, says the journalist's primary obligation is to act as a human being. "Obviously the more serious it is, if people are in dire straits, the more obligated someone is regardless of who they are to render assistance. The other factor is whether there are others there who can render assistance," he says, noting that simply calling someone over might be sufficient.

But really, why are you trying to conjure up some notion that journalists are callous assholes who'll watch some accident victim or whomever else die? Does it really have anything to do with the topic at hand?

(My response)
When it comes down to it, the poster has rationalized their decision and is looking for support for that rationalization, which I think he's pretty much spot on.
posted by cellphone at 8:57 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should always stop.

1. The people might not be dead. I've seen people survive amazingly horrific wrecks.

2. You're a witness. Don't second guess what is or is not pertinent information. That's the job of the police. Tell them what you saw and what you know. They'll decide if it's important.

3. If you don't know what to do, stay out of the way of people who do. Also, you can find out what to do in even the most basic First Aid course. I'm just sayin'.

4. Nothing is so important that it can't wait. Whether you have time to help should not enter into it.

5. If other folks have stopped, only stop if your trained or if you're a witness. Otherwise, no obligation on your part.

6. Don't beat yourself up about it this time.

Also, as others have said, many states have a "failure to render aid" law. They take it pretty seriously here.
posted by ColdChef at 8:57 AM on June 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

(oh, and yes, for what it's worth your behavior is illegal in my country, refusing to intervene in an obvious case of emergency can be considered criminal negligence by a prosecutor)
posted by matteo at 8:59 AM on June 3, 2007

You really only know two things: there was an accident and the news papers reported there were no survivors. Without you checking the accident closely you'll never know if you could have done something or not to change the headlines from "no survivors" to "man saves crash victim".

Also, I think it may have been worthwhile to have asked the police you called if there was something you could do to help. They may have wanted you to stay to make a statement or given you advice on what Would have been appropriate. What I'm saying is, there was probably something you could have done, but didn't.

But that's not to say what you did was horrible. There's nothing stopping you from leaving what you're doing right now and going out to help other people, but you don't. I guess what I'm trying to get across is that you're actions weren't perfect, but they weren't totally out of line. I'm not sure I'd have done anything different.
posted by Green With You at 9:01 AM on June 3, 2007

Your belief that you could not have helped is self-serving, just like marking as "Best Answer" those answers which absolve you.

If you really could not have helped, then it matters little that you didn't stop. But I don't think you could have known that.
posted by grouse at 9:06 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

what smackfu et al. said, you're using this thread to assuage your obvious guilt after coldly (your word, not mine) ignoring an accident not to make "a long journey even longer". people take selfish decisions every day, you took one -- you just didn't give a shit if people were seriously injured/dead, because you couldn't possibly be positive about that (diagnosing people from a speeding car? that's cool, doctor!). it's not like you killed them yourself, I guess, so it's OK, don't sweat it.

hope you got home earlier than you thought.

Dude there is answering the question ("was this wrong?") and then there is needlessly being a dick about it and purposely tryring to make him feel worse about a situation he obviously already feels badly about.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 9:12 AM on June 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: ***you're using this thread to assuage your obvious guilt***

No, I am asking for community feedback on whether this was a good desicion or not and if not, what I could have done differently. I am not asking for legal opinions eithert.

***just like marking as "Best Answer" those answers which absolve you.***

It was marked best answer for offering suggestions on how to respond better to these types of situations.

So thank you bilabial for the first aid training suggestion. What's done is done, but if I find myself in that situation again, perhaps I'll have the training to help. What sort of training should I get?
posted by The Behatted Wild Man of Greenfield at 9:13 AM on June 3, 2007

smackfu nails it
posted by alby at 9:23 AM on June 3, 2007

I like how people are saying 'You broke the law! (well, in my country)'. Yeah, if it isn't the law where the poster is they didn't break the law. It's as if you're trying to make the person feel guilty.

The poster asked if what he did was moral. Part of determining that is (or should be) looking at how other people have answered that question; looking at other states' or countries' laws is a perfectly valid way of determining what others have decided is necessary and right to do in this situation.

I don't know how long ago the accident was, but would it be worth contacting the police now to see if they need your help in any way? That would seem a decent way to try to make things right here.
posted by occhiblu at 9:45 AM on June 3, 2007

Best answer: The problem is, you didn't have time to go through the mental checklist and weigh all the variables in the split second after you were subjected to a horrific stimulus AND operating a vehicle whizzing past it at high speed.

Once you'd passed it, you were probably traveling away at the same speed, working through what to do. Next time, pull the car over and THEN decide what to do. Two minutes of your time to think it out will tell you whether or not to carry on down the road (which physically AND mentally takes you away from the event) or go in the other direction which carries you closer. This applies to all things.

If you can work that step in (sometimes you can't because you're not metaphorically "operating the vehicle", and therefore can't stop it) you will give yourself an opportunity to decide what's right for YOU. It also makes yourself accountable for all your actions. This is terrifying for most people. It's part of what we are trying to learn as humans. You were faced with a huge test of that more strength and you weren't prepared for it. It's ok, you're learning a lot from it anyway.

There's still many things you can do to be helpful:

1. Write down the facts as you remember them. Especially the least gruesome parts (ie. you couldn't see such-and-such because there was a huge, leafy tree in the way. Or, the moon was shining/not shining down on this part of the pavement, etc.) Your memory will fade, and these details will help you not only remember the scene accurately, but humanize it in way that focuses on other things besides the disturbing parts. Oh, and don't feel bad if you can't remember anything—that's natural too because you witnessed a traumatic event.

2. Give these details to the police...it might better help them recreate the event timeline (what if a car had rolled from point A to point B, but the police didn't know that because it stopped by the time they showed up, but YOU saw it at point A...that kind of stuff can be VERY helpful)

3. Know that even though the police, paramedics, etc. were all better equipped to handle this scene, they are likely struggling with the emotional/psychological side of things too. Coming forth and providing what you can MAY help one of those people too. Unfortunately, you may never directly reap the reward of this, but it's the same way that nobody here on Askme will ever personally know if any info we've provided has helped YOU. Just the act of sharing may be enough (I've seen some horrible things in my day too. Writing this helps me.)

4. Go to some counseling sessions to work through this. The quicker you work it out with the handy tools that counseling provides, the stronger person you will be SOONER, especially if something like this ever occurs again (and thousands of events like this will, they fortunately will be of infinitely smaller scale...but you can apply the new wisdom and experience nonetheless).

5. Get EMT/CPR certified.

6. Do some cathartic things...write some letters, read some books about loss, play some video games, read the local newspapers, go to a funeral, go to a party, take a day off work, whatever it is that says "I'm going to take some time to myself and think/not think, zone out, be in the moment—whatever it is YOU need to do to carry on. Make some time and take it.

I hope I've helped.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2007 [4 favorites]

There's a massive gap between "should have", "must have" and right / wrong. Sure, you "should have" stopped, but it's not "wrong" for you not to do so.. that decision comes down to your own morals. Personally, my morals are of a "if I didn't cause it or have any active role in it, I'm nothing to do with it" type.. whereas others would be mortified if anyone fled such a scene. It comes down to personal morals. There's no high moral authority that can say otherwise (other than your church, if you're into that sort of thing).
posted by wackybrit at 10:04 AM on June 3, 2007

Best answer: Nothing you have done is surprising or abnormal in any way.

You said: I made this decision without a few seconds of seeing the crash, in a very cold fashion i.e. people die everyday, there is nothing I could have done, move on.

This felt like coldness to you, because you've probably not experienced it before, but it was actually shock. By the severity of the crash, I'm assuming you were driving at freeway speeds. Had you actually experienced the emotion and grief of confronting death--even the death of a stranger--while driving at high speed, you would have been endangering yourself and others. Your animal brain took over at this point by shutting down your emotions. This is entirely normal and expected (and desirable) in traumatic situations.

While under the effects of emotional shock, your decision (which was not a true 'decision' in the sense of you weighing pros and cons and analyzing what you should do) was to keep going. This was also an instinct from your animal brain, warning you not to go near death, as the disease/predator/danger that killed another could kill you. Now that you are safe, your rational mind is able to think, and it's decision is different than what your animal mind did, so you are second guessing yourself.

Someone above mentioned the 'fight or flight' response. Studies are now showing that it's actually a 'fight or flight or freeze' response, and that many many people in life threatening situations do nothing, even when they are uninjured and a simple action--such as leaving a burning plane--would save them. In the news stories of the VaTech shooting, most of the students and teachers froze. I heard of only one classroom where they thought to barricade the door, and even then, the young man that did it had to force himself to move after he thought of the idea. In your case, the 'freeze' action was to continue doing what you had been doing--keep driving. About fifteen years ago, I had a near miss on the freeway that would have certainly resulted in serious injury or death. I remember that I drove for several more miles, knowing that I needed to exit the freeway and stop somewhere, but unable to force my hand to leave the steering wheel to activate the turn signal.

These instincts can be overcome, by training and experience, but it is not immoral or unnatural to experience them. Good luck to you.
posted by happyturtle at 10:13 AM on June 3, 2007 [9 favorites]

Mr. Rogers probably would have stopped.

On the other hand, being less saintly than Mr. Rogers is hardly something to beat yourself up over.

Also, as others have said, many states have a "failure to render aid" law. They take it pretty seriously here.

Louisiana (or Finland, or wherever) requires all uninvolved motorists who drive by a wreck to stop and render aid? Goodness. That must make for crowded accident scenes.

AFAICT, "failure to render aid" provisions come in when the person failing to render aid was involved in the wreck. Not to random passersby passing by.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:50 AM on June 3, 2007

I would have done the same. I have a very strong "don't get involved" reflex and experience has shown if I see something that disturbing it will haunt me for years.

I wouldn't feel badly about it. (It's not illegal where I live. Quit hijacking the thread.)

You at least have the sympathy to feel badly about it.

You have regrets. What do you think you should have done? Wish you could have done? If you don't do that next time then you're in the wrong.
posted by Ookseer at 11:09 AM on June 3, 2007

"In our first aid certification course we learned that the first thing to decide before approaching the scene of an emergency is...
Is it safe to do so?"

Exactly. Before stopping, think very hard about the conditions you are putting yourself, and possibly others in your car into. Accident scenes are magnets for secondary collisions, as distracted and gawking drivers fail to observe cars slowing or stopped in unusual positions, or simply lose control of their vehicles. Since I have some medical training and carry a first aid kit, I do stop when by myself, but with others in the car I require a substantial shoulder to park the car away from from the roadway. I have driven on when confronted with an accident in rainy/foggy conditions, no shoulder, and loved ones in the car.

I highly recommend taking a basic first aid course. Understanding how to ensure an open airway, cope with shock, and the importance of immobilizing back injuries can go a long way.
posted by Manjusri at 11:44 AM on June 3, 2007

You should have stopped.
Take CPR. Please.
posted by bkiddo at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2007

Couple of questions to think about.

If it was a member of your family in the crashed car, would you want someone driving by to stop, or not?

You dialled the emergency services - what if everyone driving past thought nah, someone else will do that, dozens probably already have, I don't want to get involved, they'll have my cellphone number, they might make me come back and give a statement, I'll be late, it will be an inconvenience, I'll not bother? Would that be a good thing?

Given that you drove past, and did not stop, I'm surprised that you can know for sure from a couple of seconds' glance out your window that everyone was dead. That no-one was lying off to the side. That the car hadn't swerved to avoid a cyclist or pedestrian, who was now injured in the bushes.

Maybe the environment was such that you could, I don't know. And then you're probably right. There probably was nothing you could have done. But if you're asking about the ethical dimension, I'd say there's a long way between probable and definite.
posted by reynir at 1:00 PM on June 3, 2007

Having come close to dying myself, let me chime in: we all die alone, in the sense that our ability to communicate with others shuts down before our ability to perceive others shuts down.

That said, if you're dying slowly enough to perceive that you're dying, it's a great comfort to know someone else is there, even if you no longer have the strength/resources to communicate with them.

It's entirely possible that someone might be so far gone you think they can't possibly perceive your presence, and yet they can, and find that comforting in their last moments. Squeeze their hand, talk to them.

Me personally, I wouldn't want to hear lies about my condition or about Jesus; others might. I would want to hear what the situation was: I'd be worried about the other people who were in the car with me. If you can't bring yourself to tell the truth, then just repeat that 911 has been called, help is on the way, that you'll stick around.

(Blankets are comforting too: dying by blood loss or anything that limits blood flow -- and most forms of dying are one or both --, is cold. If you can't possibly medically assist, throw a blanket over them (not over the face, obviously)
posted by orthogonality at 1:29 PM on June 3, 2007

What sort of training should I get?

Good on you for asking the question. At a minimum, imho, every citizen everywhere should take a basic first aid/CPR course and keep the certification up to date. I took one last fall from the Red Cross ($65) and it really helped me get mentally comfortable with the idea of offering basic on-scene assistance in situations like the one you encountered - accidents, drownings, burns, lacerations, etc. It was a solid experience all around, even if the medical information was relatively basic. I remember particularly one young couple who took the course together; when we were asked on the first day why we were there, the mother shrugged and said, "we just had our first child."

I remember thinking at the time, "Damn. Why isn't this class filled with young married couples?"

I continued on and took an EMT-Basic class at the local community college (another $65, just took the state exam yesterday), and am very happy for having done so. There's not that steep a learning curve from "knowing nothing" to "being able to offer useful basic assistance at an accident site," and it seems pretty obvious to me that societies get better overall when more folks take that small step. But even if they don't, people really should stop to help in even tiny, tiny ways when they witness even part of an accident.
posted by mediareport at 5:02 PM on June 3, 2007

Response by poster: There's a couple of things of note.

1. There was another person in the car with me who is glad we didn't stop because they are not emotinally equipped to handle such things.

2. The crashing car missed us by about 10 feet. 2 seconds earlier, we would have in the crash and probably dead.

3. The other person independently came to the conclusion that happyturtle mentions, namely that I was in shock and somewhat frozen as I attempted to get us away from the "death situation".

These things are mentioned only as data points to happyturtle's comment and should in no way be construed as attempts to defend the actions or assuage guilt.
posted by The Behatted Wild Man of Greenfield at 5:33 PM on June 3, 2007

Dear God, the nerve of some people. Had that been me I'd be too shocked to even remember what the emergency services number was. (also, I come from a culture where "don't get involved in other people's business" is a strong mantra, and as undesirable as it is, it's become instinct.)

And while everyone's putting in the "in my country it's illegal!" comments: in Malaysia it's actually discouraged to stop unless you're trained and know what you're doing. What often happens is that during an accident, people would slow down to gawk and stare - and, for many, obtain the license plate number for 4D gambling. This slows down the rest of traffic, and often other accidents happen because people don't notice that there's been a slowdown. So stopping makes things worse.

You did what you can. Calling 911 was great. Don't let other people in this thread get you down. And plenty of hugs to you.
posted by divabat at 10:17 PM on June 3, 2007

It doesn't matter if you should have stopped or not. You made the decision quickly and I'm sure that your brain was telling you to leave because it knew that you couldn't handle it if you stopped. Its clear that you still aren't over it- thats why you posted it here after all.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 10:45 PM on June 3, 2007

You feel a bit guilty now; but you would have felt traumatised to some unknown degree if you had stopped. We readers can't judge which of these two scenarios is likely to be worse, because we know too little about you. My best guess is that they are about the same, so it doesn't matter whether you stopped or not.
posted by hAndrew at 12:36 AM on June 4, 2007

"Damn. Why isn't this class filled with young married couples?"

Most new parents are probably taking infant safety/CPR, which is a separate class.

posted by mbrubeck at 6:24 AM on June 4, 2007

What would've been so different if you stopped?

Your first instincts are to be rational and to care. Do you feel these are desirable traits? If you feel unsatisfied, decide today the changes you need to make to feel that you are a good person and work towards those goals.

No soul satisfying good was ever going to come of this situation but if you are able to attribute a domino effect of good to it even the most self righteous speculators will be hard pressed to ignore the solely ego stoking purpose of their words.

If my opinion counts in the slightest - you did exactly as I would've done and felt a growing respect and relief as your tale unfolded.

What I hope holds weight with you are my warm best wishes and the hope you never allow this sad event to become the basis for more. At this point you can regret, you can regret that you don't... or just live and love?
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2007

Had you stopped and attempted to render aid without being trained in CPR and/or First Aid, and had the victims died anyway, you could've been the subject of a lawsuit from the victims' family. There are some 'good samaritan' laws that will protect you if you follow your CPR/First Aid training to the letter, but for the most part it's safest not to get involved.

You did the best thing you could've done by calling 911. There is absolutely no reason to stop and gawk if you have no medical training. I've taken CPR and First aid enough times to have this drilled into me. Calling 911 is the crucial step. As someone already mentioned, you were a witness, and by calling 911 you gave your contact information to the police. You were also instrumental in getting emergency services dispatched, pat yourself on the back and try to put this traumatic experience behind you.

You did absolutely nothing wrong, and everything right, in this situation. I can't fathom why anyone would tell you otherwise unless you're trained emergency services professional.
posted by mullingitover at 11:47 AM on June 4, 2007

Had you stopped and attempted to render aid without being trained in CPR and/or First Aid, and had the victims died anyway, you could've been the subject of a lawsuit from the victims' family. There are some 'good samaritan' laws that will protect you if you follow your CPR/First Aid training to the letter, but for the most part it's safest not to get involved.

That's just not true. Good Samaritan laws also apply to folks with no CPR/first aid training at all; in fact, *that's* who they were primarily intended to help when they were first enacted. The whole point was to eliminate the "it's safest not to get involved" thing, and Good Samaritan laws do that fairly effectively.

Most new parents are probably taking infant safety/CPR, which is a separate class.

*smacks head*

posted by mediareport at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2007

mediareport writes "The whole point was to eliminate the 'it's safest not to get involved' thing, and Good Samaritan laws do that fairly effectively."

Interesting. From the Good Samaritan Law entry in Wikipedia, under general guidelines:
The responder is not legally liable for the death, disfigurement or disability of the victim as long as the responder acted rationally, in good faith, and in accordance with their level of training.
If you have no formal training then any aid you attempted to give, beyond dialing 911, would not be in accordance with your training. It's also mentioned in the article:
In some jurisdictions, Good Samaritan laws only protect those that have had basic first aid training and are certified by the American Heart Association, American Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, American Safety and Health Institute or other health organization. In other jurisdictions, any rescuer is protected from liability, granted the responder acted rationally.
So it depends on where you're at. If you're not sure, and you have no training, it's (legally) safest to fall back on point 1 of the guidelines:
Unless a caretaker relationship (such as a parent-child or doctor-patient relationship) exists prior to the illness or injury, or the "Good Samaritan" is responsible for the existence of the illness or injury, no person is required to give aid of any sort to a victim.
posted by mullingitover at 1:47 PM on June 4, 2007

It is very important to also note that the Good Samaritan laws generally (universally?) dictate that if you do stop, once you've gotten involved, you are not allowed to leave under any circumstances unless it becomes a dangerous situation, until the appropriate authorities have taken over for you.
posted by Caviar at 7:22 PM on June 4, 2007

Wow. You know, when I declare people dead, I generally don't do it from behind the windshield of a moving car. I generally sort of mosey up to them and inspect them for signs of life, like breathing and stuff. Sometimes these clearly-dead corpses surprise me by, you know, not being dead. Occasionally I have even offered some comfort in a person's final moments.

Maybe the original poster should learn some first aid and emergency response, and carry one of those safe artificial-respiration masks in his car. That way instead of thinking "There's nothing I know how to do here" and driving on, you have a valid excuse to stop.

I hope if I get in a horrible accident someday, that someone thoughtful like the wild behatted man of Greenfield stops for me.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:31 PM on June 4, 2007

You could take the Singer Approach (alarmingly popular in this forum), and frame it in terms of a child. If you saw a child floating face-down at the bottom of the pool, unmoving, would you bother diving in to save them? Even if it ruined your shoes, or made you late for lunch? What if you can't swim very well?

It's also worth considering that, on average, only 5%-10% of people who receive CPR survive. You may also want to consider when it is or is not futile to administer CPR.
posted by meehawl at 11:58 AM on June 5, 2007

Oh, and it's probably not just me, but considering this I thought of Ray Bradbury's old story, The Crowd. It works better as prose, but it was done on TV as well.
posted by meehawl at 12:13 PM on June 5, 2007

TBWMoG: I'm late and nobody's still reading, but your question affected me strongly.

Some of the responses in this thread are baffling - in particular, the ones that disparage you for saying "I made this decision...in a very cold fashion i.e. people die everyday, there is nothing I could have done, move on." They're baffling because it seems obvious - as happyturtle implied - that the potential delay in your trip is not why you didn't stop, but an after-the-fact rationalization and coping mechanism. The human brain works lightning-fast, especially during trauma, and it's easy to swap cause and effect, or cause and correlation, when analyzing one's own reactions.

Thus, I think it's unfair and even ridiculous for people to call you a callous, cold-hearted bastard. In fact, I think you're the opposite - the experience affected you so strongly that at the time, your brain was trying to protect you. You'd made the decision long before (in brain-time, anyway) you came up with the justifications.

This is all armchair speculation, of course, but come on - if you were dead inside, you wouldn't be posting this question or thinking about it as much as you obviously are. Seriously, there are people who don't stop for car accidents because they genuinely don't give a shit, and then there are people who don't stop because seeing people die grisly and unexpected deaths is fucking traumatic and terrifying, especially when you're not emotionally prepared. Paramedics are emotionally prepared. Doctors are emotionally prepared. You were not. How could you be? Why would you be?

So: I think you probably should have stopped, because in an ideal world everybody should help their fellow man in times of need, but I also don't think you should beat yourself up for not stopping. Maybe this experience will render you more able to help if you encounter something like this in the future. But also, if having seen something so horrible is weighing on you, don't trivialize that - again, it's traumatic to see people die so gruesomely (hell, I've been traumatized by watching people die gruesomely in the movies) and you shouldn't feel guilty about acknowledging its effect on you, or doing whatever you can to come to terms with it (and I think taking a first-aid class might be great in that regard).
posted by granted at 8:54 PM on June 6, 2007

Response by poster: ***
You know, when I declare people dead, I generally don't do it from behind the windshield of a moving car

You would if you ssaw the car tumble end over end for at least 50 feet, as it came towards you, affording you a unique view of everything that happend inside the car cabin, as bodies were thrown around and out of the car and the things flying debris in a crashing car can to an adult and child's body.

Be mad if you want, but understand that these people were dead, beyond any question. The news reports later confirmed what I saw and how the various people died.

In conclusion, I've signed up for CPR and basic First Aid course at the local Red Cross chapter, so hopefully next time I'll be prepared.
posted by The Behatted Wild Man of Greenfield at 7:56 AM on June 7, 2007

Yes, I'm late to the game. Sorry.

I work as an EMT. This question comes up quite often.

You did one of the things that 911 dispatchers hate..you kept driving and called 911 from a cell phone.

The best thing that you could have done is to pull over on the side of the road a little ways ahead of the accident (if it was at all safe to do so) and called 911 while stopped. Information provided could have been crucial to first responders. IE, what type of vehicle? How many people involved? At the very least, you could have said "Hi, I just saw an accident, and there were several people thrown from a vehicle. None of them are moving." Right away a dispatcher could have rolled multiple ambulances and put a lifeflight chopper on standby.

Whether or not it was ethically or morally wrong is really something that you have to decide. Personally, I would have stopped. I encourage others to do the same. If it's totally unsafe to stop then pull over when it is safe to do so.

"Be mad if you want, but understand that these people were dead, beyond any question."

And that is a very dangerous (and stupid) assumption to make. In this county, we have very clear protocols regarding the declaration of death. You just made an assumption. Whether or not the news reports confirmed it afterwards is totally irrelevant. I have seen quite a few incidents of 'OMG nobody could have survived that!' only to have those involved survive.
Perhaps you'll learn that in the first aid course.
posted by drstein at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2007

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