The Bystander Effect

On the weekend, we witnessed a car crash.

We were on our way to the airport to drop off Ian’s brother after Ben’s Raptor Birthday Party Extravaganza (more on that later, but here’s a little taste). As often happens on the highway, for whatever reason someone braked unexpectedly, and as also often happens, someone else had a momentary lapse in attention and didn’t catch on in time.

Black car meets slams back of red car, red car careens sideways into blue car, and there you have it.

Ian immediately pulled in front of the black car and stopped while the other two cars and one other witness made their way to the shoulder. One other witness. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?? The black car made no move to go anywhere – it obviously wasn’t driveable anyway – and the driver made no move to get out. I dialed 911 while Ian pulled onto the shoulder and ran back towards the others.

Getting back to the WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE – At this point, you might be wondering, “What were all the other cars doing?” Well, they were continuing to drive as quickly as they could around the disabled car in the middle of the highway containing a driver whose condition and related degree of alive or deadness was as yet unknown. Some of them honked for good measure.

So sorry about the inconvenience, guys.

By the time I finished with the 911 dispatcher, Ian and the others (the other drivers involved in the accident, who went to the aid of the driver who had caused it – go figure) had ascertained that the injured driver was alive and conscious but having chest pains. As it turned out, a passenger from one of the other cars was a physician and took charge of providing first aid. It was at that point that I spotted the baby seat in the back of the car but THANK GOD the driver said she was alone in the car.

Around that point, the people from the one other car that had stopped, having determined that everything was under control, left, which makes sense – too many cooks and all. The key point is they DID stop and make sure of the situation rather than, y’know, cursing the nerve of people getting themselves all potentially dead and messing up their afternoon plans.

Within a minute or two we started to see flashing lights making their way up the shoulder, which was a great relief, until we realized they were tow trucks, otherwise known as vultures. One of them stopped in front of the disabled black car and the driver immediately got out, walked halfway back the scene, saw that the driver was still in the car, and RETURNED TO HIS TRUCK TO WAIT. Did I mention the whole WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE thing? He didn’t say a single word to anyone – just noted that the driver was still inside, and having staked his claim, went to chillax until the car was ready to hook up. A couple more tow trucks soon followed and moved into position in front of the other cars on the shoulder.

It was around this point that sleek little BMW came screaming up behind another car that had the decency to slow down as they passed the disabled car and unprotected pedestrians, saw a space, and whipped around, laying on the horn to drive home the point (so to speak). WHAT THE HELL IS… My stock of evens is seriously depleted, guys.

The ambulance arrived soon after, followed quickly by fire and police. Ian broke out bottles of water (leftovers from Ben’s party) for the other drivers and we waited as the police took statements. Within another 20 minutes or so, the driver was en route to hospital, the disabled cars were being removed, and we were shaking hands with the other drivers and getting back on our way.

All told, this cost us maybe half an hour.

Now, I do my very best to keep from judging other people.  I really, really do. I know that each one of us has our own journey to travel. But in this case I simply cannot believe that for every car on that road save TWO that journey could possibly have been important enough to preclude stopping to assess the situation in the aftermath of a serious high speed collision. Hundreds – HUNDREDS of cars whizzed past without even slowing down except to rubberneck for a few seconds.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been on the other side of it. When I had a car accident (that will be a post of its own sometime – good story), I waited alone, injured and in shock, in a wrecked car for 15 minutes. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life, and I remember thinking, “Someone will stop. Surely someone will stop,” but nobody did.

In a way I understood – the bystander effect is a force to be reckoned with.

The voice that says, “Someone else will stop. I wouldn’t be able to do anything. They’re probably fine. I’m sure somebody has already called it in,” is insidious and so very persuasive. I had those same thoughts as we stopped, and it took seeing that the driver wasn’t moving to really snap me into action. But after my accident Ian and I made a promise to each other that we would always help. Whether that means calling 911 or actually pulling over, depending on the situation, we vowed that we would never again assume that someone else is going to respond.

So here’s my PSA: The next time you are faced with that decision and the voice in your head is assuring you that it’s all good, assume that you are the only one who will help. Because you probably are. And it will make a world of difference.

Overcome the Bystander Effect in 2 easy steps - by

Overcome the Bystander Effect in 2 Easy Steps: 1. Know that you are enough. 2. Know that you are the only one who will help.


3 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. Sounds traumatic.

    I don’t know if this will add anything to the discussion: having been on all three sides of the situation.
    1. Witness (I stopped, waited but police took too long, gave contact info and gave statement next day)
    2. Nearby car who heard a bang but didn’t see anything, so I drove on.
    3. Car accident, ahem, participant. No-one stopped.

    None were at high speeds. But when I did stop as a witness, I can absolutely understand why no-one else did: there was really no other angle where you could have seen what happened.
    Also, I lack a sense of self-preservation. I nearly got jumped on for helping a homeless guy the other day, on the way to Yen Yen and Amir’s party. I probably should learn not to do things that would put me and my fetus at higher risk, and that might include stopping at an accident scene on a fast-moving highway.

    • I think every situation is a judgement call, for sure. Also I think I’m with you somewhat with the lack of self-preservation. We stopped and participated in the safest way possible under the circumstances, but there’s no denying that it was significant less safe than driving on.

      The trouble with the bystander effect is that it paralyzes everyone – so my intent with this post is to get just one person to think, “It had better be me, then,” the next time they’re faced with the situation. If people can overcome the initial, “Someone else has probably already done it/will do it,” then they can get to the next step of, “Okay, what’s safest/best/most effective way for me to help under these particular circumstances.”

      I think maybe I should have emphasized calling 911 more, since that’s something that almost everyone can do without putting themselves in significant danger or really impacting their own day. If you look at the example of my accident, no-one did even that – including me, because *I* was in shock and it didn’t occur to me to call 911 instead of CAA – I really needed someone else in a more rational frame of mind to make that decision for me.

      • I totally agree. So frustrating. I’m resigning as vice president of our union, because I can’t do this extra job with a newborn or toddler. I’ve got a whole bargaining unit of 85 people who all feel very strongly that SOMEONE ELSE should replace me as stewards. They’re not newbies. There is training and pay for this. I’ve emailed them all repeatedly and approached individuals including dissatisfied people and (I use this term very loosely) “trouble-makers” who may feel motivated to do a better job than the current situation that they like to criticize. No luck. So they’re left with no local representation. Wait until you get the next letter of discipline or the employer tries to terminate you without just cause, NOW who’s sitting in the office beside you, opposite two managers?

        I don’t know what’s with this apathy. I will now stop taking over your very detailed blog post. end vent.

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