What Would You Do in a Hit and Run?

Psychologist and EMT weigh in on video of injured, neglected man.

June 6, 2008 — -- Yesterday's release of surveillance video depicting a 78-year-old hit-and-run victim lying in the street but ignored by onlookers and motorists has sparked a public debate over the humanity and the responsibility of the city's residents.

Hartford, Conn., Mayor Eddie A. Perez announced his disgust Thursday after watching the footage, showing several cars swerving to avoid Angle Arce Torres, who was lying paralyzed and bleeding from the head.

But while Perez calls such negligence "horrific," those onlooker may in fact not know how to act in such a medical emergency, or why their instincts tell them to stay put.

Waiting in the Wings

City officials told the Hartford Courant that four people called 911 to report last Friday's incident — but that may not always be enough in an emergency situation.

Tragically, some experts say the public's inaction is a classic social occurrence.

"It's kind of a textbook case of bystander phenomenon," says John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.

Bystander phenomenon, sometimes referred to as bystander apathy or the Genovese effect, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to respond to an emergency when there are others around.

A famous case in New York in 1968 involved 29-year-old Kitty Genovese being brutally murdered in front of her apartment building while 38 people who witnessed the event did nothing to help.

Although Darley says it is tempting to classify those who stood by and did nothing to help Torres as "rotten, kind of alienated people," the situation is complicated by several factors.

"If you are alone with a victim, then you help or nobody helps," Darley says. "If you are at all conflicted about helping, you can say somebody knows more."

In this way, responsibility is unconsciously spread between several people, each of whom may believe that others know better than they do, and so fail to offer any help themselves.

Unsafe Environment?

In Torres's case, Darley says there may have been other factors, such as the claim that the neighborhood in which the accident occurred is not particularly safe, that kept locals from moving quickly to aid him.

In addition, those who did not witness Torres getting hit from the beginning may have taken their cue from people around them and assumed that the situation was not dire.

"What you fail to realize is, those people are as confused as you are," Darley says.

Social cues can be confusing, but the legal issues of an emergency situation can be complicated as well. In some states, so-called Good Samaritan statutes may find fault with a person for neglecting a stranger publicly in need. However, Darren Kavinoky, a criminal defense lawyer in Woodland Hills, Calif., says the arm of the law can come down on the other side too.

"Passer-bys generally have no obligation to help," Kavinoky said, unless there is a special relationship, such as parent-child, or if someone is duty-bound to act, such as a lifeguard or a police officer.

"If you undertake to help, and do so negligently, you may be liable for the additional damage you cause. Once you start, you can't change your mind and walk away."

Jumping Into Action

So what should someone do when confronted with a seriously injured accident victim?

"There's some common sense things people can do," says Arthur Hsieh, a paramedic and the chief executive officer of the San Francisco Paramedic Association. First, says Hsieh, citizens should make sure the area is safe to approach the person who's been hit.

"Many people will stop their own cars or people will wave down traffic," says Hsieh. "But if there's a lot of traffic in the roadway there's absolutely no expectation for someone to risk their own life to rescue someone else."

Ambulance drivers follow the same tenant, and often block the scene of an accident with their vehicles. "If you look at the way we park ambulances — we use them as shields," says Hsieh.

Once cars do stop — which at least one lane of traffic did in the Connecticut surveillance video — Hsieh says people should follow a few basic rules: Call 911, do not move the person and do not give the person anything to eat or drink because vomit can interfere with later medical treatment.

"Only move someone if it's necessary, for example if someone's in the car, and the car is on fire," says Hsieh. Moving someone with a spine injury could cause even more damage.

If someone starts looking pale, breathing quickly, sweating, shaking or shivering, Hsieh says the person should be covered with a jacket or a blanket to keep the victim from going into shock. Even simple steps like these can help tremendously, says Hsieh, who adds most people can learn crucial medical response and CPR information in a day or half-day course.

"When the public is involved in severe cases, it's really the public that makes a difference in saving a life," says Hsieh.