Imagine you're walking down the street on a beautiful afternoon. An older man enjoys a cup of coffee at an outdoor café, a young couple strolls down the sidewalk arm in arm, a child runs across the street with his parents in tow.
Suddenly you notice something that grabs your attention. A man who appears to be intoxicated stumbles toward a car and tries to get into the driver's seat. What would you do?
Would you intervene and try to stop the man from driving away? A "Primetime" experiment posed this very dilemma to unsuspecting pedestrians on a busy street in suburban New Jersey.
"Primetime" set up eight hidden cameras in and around a car parked on a bustling street. Then Jake, an actor hired by "Primetime," drunkenly ambled over to the car and attempted to get in. Every single time, someone intervened. Different people tried different tactics.
Some offered to buy Jake coffee. Some warned him of the danger of a DUI arrest. Others reminded him of innocent people who could get hurt in an accident.
One woman named Elaine told Jake a story from her life, highlighting the consequences of putting himself in danger. After noticing a child's seat in the back of Jake's car, Elaine said, "My son is 27 years old. His father was murdered when he was 9 years old, and you know what? Every day I wake up, it hurts that my child had to grow up without a father. You don't want that for your little girl."
Elaine was relieved when she learned it was only an experiment, but she told "Primetime's" John Quinones, "It's just a human thing to do. I would do it for anybody."
Altering the Experiment
"Primetime's" producers wanted to know if people would always be so quick to jump in. What if the drunk wasn't dressed as well? What if the actor was a woman? And what if the drunk was with two young children?
When Jake was wearing less preppy-looking clothing, however, bystanders didn't jump in as quickly. When they did, though, they were just as caring and helpful as before. John Quinones discussed people's reactions with Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University.
"If the drunk looked like a bum, would people be less apt to act?" he asked.
"Probably so, because they may have seen him as more threatening, more dissimilar to them, therefore engendering less empathy," Keating said.
Would gender make a difference? "Primetime" tried the experiment with a woman playing the would-be drunk driver. An actress, Cecelia, was soon stopped by a good Samaritan named David.
"I really don't think you should be drinking," he said.
When Cecelia insisted that she was fine, David replied, "I understand, but I think you'll be in an accident."
"I think I'm just gonna go, just gonna go home," Cecelia said, slurring her words.
David tried reasoning with her. "I don't think that's a good idea. First of all, you'll get yourself hurt, and then you're gonna be in an accident with somebody else as well."
David was coming from the gym and didn't have a cell phone. But that didn't stop him. He assembled a team consisting of him and three more people. One called the police as David tried to block Cecelia from the driver's door. They then took her gently by the arms and walked her over to a chair. John Quinones approached and told them no one was really in danger.
David said he believed that drunk driving is everyone's business.
"Just look at this young child going by," he said "He could have been hit by her if she was really drunk."
What If Children Are Involved?
It didn't seem to make a difference if the actor was a man or a woman. But would people react differently if the drunk was with young children?
The responses did indeed seem markedly different. People reacted more quickly and much more urgently. When Cecelia tried to get in the car with two little girls, a group of people gathered around to intervene almost immediately. They got hold of her keys and ignored her when she asked for them back.
The man who took the keys, Jerry, was a drug and alcohol counselor. He said that he wouldn't have given the keys back to Cecelia "under any circumstances."
"I would have given them to a police officer. I would not have given them to her," he said.
But is that the right thing to do?
David Sabagh, the chief of police in Montclair, N.J., said that holding on to a drunk driver's keys when the driver asks for them back may not always be the best idea.
"We don't want to see anybody putting themselves at risk," he said. "You don't want to risk a life to save a life. You don't know who you're dealing with, quite frankly, and you don't want them to become violent or boisterous. You want to make sure not to harm yourself."
Sabagh recommended that if you can't convince the person not to drive, then step back and try to distract the driver until the police arrive.
But if that doesn't work, be an attentive witness: Take down the license plate number, call 911 and give police detailed information about the driver. And remember those good Samaritans the next time you see someone tipsy about to get into a car.