|It’s been a long day, it’s dark out, and you’re in a hurry to get home. You’re driving along, paying attention to the road but also thinking about what you’re going to do later. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone darts out from beyond your peripheral vision right into your path. A dull thud. You don’t even have time to swerve. You stop the car and back up. Then what? You get out of the car, of course. You assess the situation, and if there is any injury you call 911 immediately. You stay at the scene offering whatever help you can. Even if there are no witnesses. Especially if there are no witnesses. You do this even if no one is hurt, or no one seems to be hurt. If you know emergency techniques you apply them. If the victim is an animal or a bird, you know exactly what to do. Anyone who would flee the scene of an accident they were party to must have been either drunk or driving without a license, right?
Well, maybe not. In Toronto we have recently had a rash of hit and run accidents involving injured people. Police have no idea why the hit-and-run rate seems to have spiked. What is even more surprising to police is the number of witnesses who flee the scene and don’t offer testimony later. After all, these people didn’t do anything wrong, so the excuse that they could be facing long prison terms, life disruption and the fury of the family and friends of the injured doesn’t apply to witnesses.
In LA, they’re experts at this. With 9000 hit-and-runs a year, they have a lot of experience, and what they tell us is troubling: The rate of hit-and-runs is rising, despite crackdowns on unlicensed and repeat inebriated drivers. Those who flee the scene almost never come forward later. And the few who do all say the same thing: “They say they were scared and they didn’t know what to do, and they panicked and they fled.” Witnesses flee even faster, presumably rationalizing that someone else will have seen the accident or happen upon the scene soon and stay to deal with it. They don’t respond to rewards offered later — presumably because they don’t want to admit they didn’t stay in the first place.
To what do we ascribe this behaviour? The obvious answer is “Because we think the chances of getting away with it outweigh the responsibility and penalties for staying.” We are risk-averse and motivated by the perceived relative penalties and rewards for different behaviours. We make a snap judgement. “If I stay, my life will be ruined, for sure, even though it was an accident and probably wasn’t my fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case the only downside is a lifelong guilty conscience, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences won’t be significantly worse than if I stay and face those consequences for certain.” As long as x% is greater than zero, this is a no-brainer. Even if you factor in the possibility that staying might mitigate the extent of injuries, that is unlikely to change your mind — it might make you ‘anonymously’ report the accident, but would be unlikely to motivate you to stay. After all, it wasn’t your fault.
I’m just speculating here, since I’ve only witnessed one accident* and that was my own (perhaps I’m not very observant — most people I know seem to have witnessed many — or perhaps the witness’ dilemma is why I’m not very observant?), but doesn’t this instant risk/reward calculation make more sense for an explanation than the assumption that hit-and-run drivers are cruel, irresponsible, evil cowards? What additional penalties for ‘leaving the scene of an accident’ could change this snap judgement?
Complexity theory says that if you want to change behaviour, you need to change the attractors (incentives) and barriers (disincentives) for different behaviours. What if we changed the law to say that if you stay at the scene of an accident you will get automatic immunity to all criminal charges you might otherwise have faced for the accident? You will still have to face the mental anguish, of course, but then you probably will face that anyway, knowing in your own mind what you might have done and perhaps even embellishing it to worst-case scenario in the absence of information. Such a law change would probably infuriate the victims and their loved ones, but ultimately the law is (or should be) less about legislating morality and justice than in achieving desired outcomes. What is less clear is whether lawmakers would ever have the courage to enact such a law. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
If they did, this would change the mathematics of the snap judgement we make at that horrific instant, which would then become: “If I stay, I will have to face a lot of anguish and perhaps anger, but no chance of legal consequences, even if I should be judged partly at fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case I’ll probably feel at least as bad as if I stay, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences will be significantly worse than if I stay.” This time it’s a no-brainer in favour of staying.
That will work for accidents with potential criminal consequences. It might also work, more modestly, to encourage witnesses to stay at the scene. It won’t work for accidents that have only moral consequences. In countries like Canada that have pathetic, non-existent animal protection laws, for example, the snap judgement after hitting an animal will remain: “If I stay, I’ll probably face anguish, anger from the owner, and perhaps desperate helplessness at what to do, even though it was an accident and probably wasn’t my fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case the only downside is a fleeting guilty conscience, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences won’t be significantly worse than if I stay and face those consequences for certain.” In this case it’s still a no-brainer for fleeing, unless you’re a person of exceptional courage, honesty, and/or preparedness (I hope never to find out whether I am such a person).
The answer to this, of course, is for lawmakers to have the courage to enact meaningful animal protection laws. I’m not holding my breath for that, either.
* I was once in a car with people who witnessed an accident. In the 1970s in the UK I was in a car (this was during my hitchhiking days) driven by a couple who witnessed a single-car accident on an expressway against a guard rail (I was watching the scenery in the opposite direction). My hosts stopped and pulled over to the left shoulder of the expressway, as the victim staggered out of his car, face covered with blood, and begged the driver not to report the accident (it would have been a repeat DUI accident that would cost him his licence and his job). We drove him to the hospital and my host lefthis business card with the admitting nurse.
Photo from Mariposa County (Calif.) fire department online archives.
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