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.