If No One Helps

Somewhere on the Highlands route between Edinburgh and my hard to heat but hard to hate little crooked house a few crooked miles from Beauly, a lane-changing white van, conforming to the stereotype, bobbed in and out of my rear view mirror as it threaded through the competition, flashing headlights to eliminate the endless enemy: the cars in front.

At a point where the long skinny stretch suddenly swells to allow three lane traffic, the van roared past me, but soon afterwards the driver lost control of the vehicle and it began to straddle the middle and outside lanes before hitting the crash barrier, losing one of its front wheels in the process. The wheel rolled on recklessly, dementedly, for some distance. The van veered sideways, scraping down the dual carriageway, and in those few seconds fired a furious frenzy of blinding sparks across my windscreen before the grass embankment brought it to a halt. Several cars braked sharply, and at all angles, but they moved on quickly to avoid a pile-up. They moved on quickly and kept moving, some in such haste that their wheels sent small chunks of shattered glass at speed into the scene of the accident. Luckily, I managed to avoid hurtling into the side of the van, though somewhat strangely I found myself pulling the steering wheel towards me as though tugging the reins of a horse, reminiscent of those days that started with a hi-ho and ended by tossing silver bullets into a drawer.

Leaving the car door wide open, I dashed towards the white wreck – aware and, in all truth, terrified of what appeared to me to be a possible petrol leak – got the van door open, climbed in, unbuckled the driver and dragged him out. Unbearable, the thought of being trapped alone in that confined space, somehow made worse by the fact so many people were speeding by. His head was hanging limp and loose and he seemed only distantly aware, and whilst that might describe any number of people I grew up with, I read the context and took a chance on his neck being okay (he had moved a little), pulling him free before the van blew up. It had blown up in bursts of flame several times in my imagination during the few minutes it took me to haul him up the grass embankment, a steep and slippery slope – although only a little guy, he proved surprisingly difficult to move, like dragging a floppy rag doll filled with lead pellets.

Once clear of the crumpled heap of metal, my ever-expanding infantile side craved the dramatic Hollywood blockbuster ending, where I emerge from the dense black smoke in a firefighter’s uniform carrying puppies. Yes, I am that idiot. I also felt like an idiot for continually asking him if he was alright, since it was quite clear he wasn’t – I couldn’t think of anything else to say to urge him to remain in the conscious world – and during my line of monotonous questioning I began to feel regret for making the assumption that he was a reckless van driver playing a road racer game, when in fact his brakes may have been shot; it was possible he had been flashing his lights to get clear of the other motorists for their safety.

The ambulance came and went and I was left answering questions from two uniformed police officers, one a good cop, the other not so good. Even though I had been behind the vehicle and the accident had nothing to do with me (at most, a witness), I was told that it was procedure to breathalyse. Did this mean they would have breathalysed all the drivers that had been forced to brake or swerve if they had actually remained to offer help? Who knows? There must have been quite a few. All I knew for certain was that my position had moved from being someone who stopped in an attempt to save someone’s life to that of someone under suspicion, and the fact of being breathalysed reinforced that. Perhaps experience informed the other drivers that it was better not to get involved. Or maybe they were just smarter than me; as I stood there blowing into a bag for the world to see, it began to feel like it.

When one officer cracked open a kit and told me to blow, and nothing showed up, the result provoked a mixture of indignation and disappointment on his part, and despite his colleague quietly urging him to let it go, he cracked open another kit with renewed determination and breathalysed me for a second time. Again nothing, not even a trace of the Irn Bru I had been guzzling on the road up. Admittedly, I have never been described as a human dynamo, and it was perhaps possible that he misconstrued my apparent sluggishness for insobriety. There was one time in the lab at university I was wired up with biofeedback equipment to test stress responses, and owing to very shallow breathing and an indiscernible pulse was calmly informed that, according to the machine at least, I was dead.

During the interrogation, he asked how fast I was driving, and I was pleased to be able to inform him categorically my top speed never exceeded sixty. That old tartan slipper, as someone once affectionately described my ageing but reliable rust bucket, couldn’t do more than sixty downhill with a lead foot flat on the floor, so no concerns there. It was worth absolutely nothing, but I felt the urge to add that, in all truth, I was a careful driver. In fact I arrived at the driving game comparatively late, during an age of relative sensibleness, bypassing the yearnings for yeah baby trappings, torque, thrust and vroom. If anything, I belong to the slower cars of yesteryear: the Morris Minor, for example, or any vintage vehicle with front fenders that you could slide down…when you were small. I was once told, incidentally, almost all that was required to service the Morris Minor was a hose – ever get the feeling the world is more complicated than it has to be?

I was sorry to have mentioned anything; as soon as I said ‘in all truth’ his face registered intense incredulity, expressed in the form of a long and unnerving stare. Not that I am against the odd wee lie for a good cause. On my merry way to Jolly’s Pizza in Elm Row in Edinburgh one evening, I was stopped in Picardy Place – birthplace of Arthur Conan Doyle! – by a group of sailors who wanted to know the whereabouts of the red light district. Americans. I was appalled that they should choose to ask me – would they have been as quick to consult a robed disciple of the Dalai Lama? I managed to conceal my annoyance and calmly gave them directions for Morningside – they were looking for hotties, but haughty types would have to do – adding that they should ask the bus driver to drop them off at Holy Corner. I like to think that, at best, I may have put the lie in enlightenment, and at worst led them to an area that was rubbish for pubs.

Somewhat grudgingly, it seemed, the police officer said they had all the details they needed and that I could go, leaving me feeling less like a Good Samaritan than a criminal that had narrowly escaped justice. It had been my misfortune to encounter a person in authority who embodied a lack of empathy and the potential to encourage apathy in equal measure, and I suspected he enjoyed exerting power over someone who hadn’t the energy to object. But really it was worse than that: I felt as though my human rights had been violated, exacerbated by the suspicion that people, based on the behaviour of the other officer and the other motorists, might stand by and let it happen. At least the episode was at an end, I thought, but in fact there was one final instalment: just before moving off, the bad cop rushed over, rapped on the window and asked if I had insurance documents in the car. I did, and he stood with his back turned for two or three long minutes to check them thoroughly. My papers were in order, and as he handed them back he tapped the bonnet twice in quick succession by way of letting me know I could move on. The good cop (was he a good cop?) thanked me for stopping, adding in a low voice that not everyone would. I don’t know if it was his intention to include the police in that bystander apathy category.

Shortly after I drove off, I began to feel the effects of the hypersecretion of stress hormones (I think I may have felt the urge to cry), but I found sanctuary in a truck stop at Ballinluig. It was a lonely place, but in a good way. Porridge was an option – I love porridge, and have it faithfully twice a week as a main meal – but the warm yellow glow of custard called to me and I sat there for ages, maybe hours, looking out the window into the wild. I don’t know why that memory sticks. I reflected on the crash and the somewhat intimidatory questioning that ensued, redolent of a nightmarish Franz Kafka novel, but above all I reflected on the feeling of isolation. No one stopped to help. I understood the psychology of that behaviour, of conforming to the norm of not stopping, and I understood that many would nonetheless be in a state of conflict about that – after all, I didn’t have a phone, yet the ambulance arrived swiftly, and so it is likely that someone who drove past the accident, perhaps several people, made that call – but I was concerned that the decision to drive on was based on the fear of becoming involved, the fear of becoming implicated through the subjection to intense scrutiny by the police.

A bright morning turned dark, especially for the van driver – I never did learn what happened to him – but he was not, in my view, the only one in need of help; it might be reasonable to suggest the police officer could benefit from some training, but I had the distinct impression his problems ran deeper and that the uniform – so often the source of deindividuation, of the distinctly oppressive ‘them and us’ relationship – not only masked his condition, but worsened it. There have been reported sightings of him working in politics, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, the military, education, management, children’s homes, social work – a vast range of occupations, in fact, that confer on the individual a certain level of authority, and with it the potential for abuse.

This was not my first brush with bystander apathy. On my way into west London one morning to give a lecture on that very subject — the experimentally well-supported notion in psychology that most people will only help individuals in distress under certain conditions, such as the number of bystanders already present, the distressed individual’s state of dress or some other indication of their status, their similarity to the victim, the victim’s assumed mental state, and even their age and ethnicity — I made my way through the gates at Hammersmith Station only to be kicked on the calf by some kids shoving from behind. This was the station terminus, and there were hundreds of commuters squashing through the gates. Without giving it much thought, I turned and growled at the pushy people, only to have the skinny tall teenagers explode in my face and immediately draw blood from my lip; it took a year for that hard pea-sized lump in my lower lip to dissolve. I was tripped and urged to the ground with relative ease, and wisely remained in a somewhat protective womblike position as several boys, aged around fourteen or fifteen, repeatedly kicked me.

Odd as it may seem, as I lay there watching through my fingers hundreds of feet shuffling hurriedly through the neighbouring terminus gates, I considered the research conducted in the 1960s by such academic luminaries as Bandura, and Latane and Darley — the focus of my lecture that day, in fact — and predicted that the very large number of people passing would most likely result in no one coming to my aid. In what psychologists call a diffusion of responsibility, or distributed responsibility, the presence of others often causes individuals to pay less attention to situations perceived as costly, usually in terms of effort, and this indifference increases the more people there are present; each person may assume someone else will take care of the situation and choose not to get involved, even though involvement need be nothing more than calling the police.

When the boys were done kicking they disappeared into the crowds, and when I stood up the entire station had emptied. This happened on a bright morning at eight am, not some shadowy night, and the reason, I would conclude, that no one helped is because no one played the Good Samaritan. Research suggests that if just one person stops to help, others will too, and even more will follow. This has the additional benefit of being repeated in future situations, of multiplying the number of Good Samaritans in the world. Instead of conforming to the norm not to stop, to do nothing, one person can turn that around and make it the norm to help.

The cost of allowing oppression to become the natural order of things is intolerably high, and whilst it may be open to conjecture whether there are endless ways to make the world endlessly better, bitter experience informs us that for it to become endlessly worse we need only do nothing. Nonetheless, doing nothing often presents itself as an attractive option, especially if you are on your own. Whether it is challenging racism, confronting a bullying boss, protesting against government policies, speaking up for refugees and marginalised groups, campaigning against war, torture, imprisonment without trial and all who tacitly or openly support it, promoting justice for animals, or simply helping someone on the street or at the scene of an accident, we would rather someone else took responsibility. Considering the risks of involvement with the police, would I stop a second time if another van went out of control and crashed in front of me? The answer is of course yes, in a heartbeat, or at least I like to think so, though ideally I would have had my custard first.

Comments (14)

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  1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks Paul. A well-woven moral tale with needlepoint action. And I know the road.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    This article rings a few bells. As a young man I had a few kickings, some deserved, some not but never at any time was I rescued.

    Experience with the police in recent times is not positive. Unless you need a report number for insurance purposes it is a waste of time reporting anything to them. They clearly work in a them and us culture where only some crimes are worth dealing with and where everyone outside is a target. On two occasions I was the target of road rage and while I made no report I was visited by the strong arm of the law; I suspect my aggressors were either off duty or plain clothes members of the force. I stopped in a quiet cornet in the precincts of the airport and was harassed, threatened and routinely humiliated by a couple of Strathclyde’s finest. Communication with the Chief Constable’s representative brought nothing positive.

    Years ago you could walk into a police station and ask for help. No one would dream of doing that now; the doors are locked, and are only opened, if they are receiving visitors, when a bell is rung and the person seeking admittance has been scrutinised through one way glass. In times of heightened tension you will see uniformed cops patrolling the outside of the station to guard against any possible attack.

    Despite increased police numbers more and more police stations are being closed. Helensburgh is closed most of the time, soon to be permanently when the lack of customers can be made to justify it. The larger station in Dumbarton is earmarked for closure and relocation to Paisley. The police are now agents of the state watching the populace from within fewer and bigger fortresses with closes doors and the latest surveillance equipment.

    Am I wrong and just paranoid? Maybe, but maybe not.

  3. w.b. robertson says:

    the merging of all the country`s old police forces into the giant Police Scotland has contributed to the growing gulf between them and us. who is safeguarding the punters? who guards the guards?

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    I have few positive experiences of police both Scottish and Australian. Authoritarian personalities need to be resisted but the worst kind are the no where people who often do more harm for they are the passive bullies who use language in such vague abstractions that they facilitate a toxicity that few of us can articulate. Your writing is so interesting and inspiring Paul. An antidote to the dross. If I had to take a writerly position would have to say that police and others of that ilk have made my life miserable at times and probably destroyed my dear brother’s life as so many young men of that of that culture have been destroyed by conditions that are beyond description so appalling. The time wasting abuse that so many take silently are culpable too afraid of losing some home comforts. Ah capitalism it is a wondrous beast. My brother barely ten years old was fined one pound for climbing on a bus shelter to retrieve his football and was spotted by a vigilant cop which cost my poor mother a pound she could not afford. That was to be the first of many dealings with them through his difficult and lonely life.

  5. Crubag says:

    Good for you for stopping, and as you say it can only take one person to do the right thing for others.

    As regards Police Scotland, it struck me that when Stephen House was being interviewed in Parliament he wore what seemed like a paramilitary uniform, rather than a collar and tie. The general trend towards looking “tactical”, like you’re about to storm a house, probably doesn’t help with dissolving barriers with the public.

    Possibly we need to move to an American model of more elected police officials to restore that local link.

  6. Phil Rooney says:

    I would have liked to tweet a link to this. I thought it well written and didn’t want to just bin it after reading.
    Could you add a “tweet this” option?

    1. Hi Phil – do you see just to the right of the article at the top (under the authors details) – there are several share options – the middle one is to Twitter. Glad you liked it. Thanks.

  7. Justin Kenrick says:

    Bloody hell.

    What a great article.

    Arresting and thought provoking in so many ways.

    The Ethiopian Airlines plane I boarded on Sunday in London (on my way to Nairobi via Addis) had to stop as it was taxiing to take off. A rather large Ethiopian man had to be taken off. He had become disturbed, attacking a woman he was traveling with.

    What was impressive though was another Ethiopian coming swiftly from further back in the plane and holding him in a headlock, all the while smiling/ talking/ befriending the man he was overpowering. A couple of others quickly came from nearby as back up, but the smile and friendliness – as much as the headlock – seemed to disarm the disturbed man.

    I have met police like that.

    Our local community police officer in Portobello has that kind of manner, and I’ve met others in authority who put their authority in service to their humanity rather than the other way round. Not least the two folk running the class for those of us who’d been caught speeding too many times.

    But that’s a different story.

    I’ll tell it if Bella’s interested, if I can link it to a campaign fir Scotland to also have the option of reorientation classes for those caught speeding, like they have down south.

    My first two offences were on the A9 (and no, I’m not proud of them) but luckily the 3rd was on the way to Newcastle. If the 3rd had been in Scotland I would have lost my license. And that would have been absolutely fair enough, but nothing like as beneficial for myself and other drivers as my being taught how not to speed.

    1. Justin Kenrick says:

      The paragraph “I have met police like that”

      Should read:

      I have met police like that: doing their job with humour, kindness and efficiency.

  8. Wul says:

    Great story telling. Thank you.

    I’ve stopped a couple of times to help people at the roadside (both pedestrians). One was very, very drunk with blood on his face and hands and I think he had been hit, or narrowly missed, by a car. Quite worrying waiting for the cops as I wondered if they would see me as a good Samaritan or a suspect.

    What direction of travel are we on as a society? More, or less likely to help than we once were?

  9. Helena-Sophia Exel says:

    Thank You for helping another Human Being without thinking twice. Usually, only doctors, nurses and firefighters would act like that. Your blending of an adrenaline pumping story line based on the accident and subsequent questioning as to why You would do something like helping a crash victim at that, under the suspicion of having had to be drunk to consider such a behavior, combined with a sparkling version of wit, can only be called ‘stellar’. I am unsure for what I should be more grateful – for what You did, or how You wrote about it. Deepest respect.

    And I am quite glad that You didn’t have a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” on the passenger seat.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. It was not The Brothers Karamazov in the passenger seat — though I can see why it might be appropriate for this moral wrangling — but T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land (plus the cassette, sadly). “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” is a line that often comes to mind. Thanks again, and to all who took the time to comment; it is much appreciated.

  10. Deborah Fox` says:

    I do enjoy your writing Paul, and this is no exception.

    I wonder about the urge to help others, and whether I do it conditionally as research suggests. I am a self confessed tramp feeder, or at least giver of money, if I have it. My youngest child seems to have inherited the gene and recently gave the local homeless guy a fiver that she could ill afford. Although I was proud of her, I heard myself going into a bit of a lecture about who I try to help, and why! It really highlighted my prejudices, and I heard myself relating an incident of not giving someone in London £1.87 as he was clearly pissed, and that was what he asked for. I did however, give another homeless guy £20 that night for two nights in the shelter. The guy I denied the £1.87 probably needed the can of tenets super strength more than the shelter guy (presuming it was for a shelter). I only noticed the conditions of my donations when relating it to someone else, someone I was trying to influence!

  11. Alistair Taylor says:

    Fine writing, Paul.
    Always keep the spark of humanity alive.
    Thank you.

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