From My Perspective – Accidents and Social Responsibility

The other day I came upon a car accident, and that incident, in addition to the unfortunate recent events that have befallen my daughter’s vehicle, got me thinking about the topic of social responsibility. Over my lifetime I’ve been involved in a few motor vehicle accidents and I’ve learned several important lessons. The obvious, of course, is that utmost caution should be exercised at all times when driving to avoid accidents. I’ve been lucky that none of my accidents caused loss of life or limb; although my daughters and I sustained long term injuries that left me with chronic pain, things could have been much worse.

As I grow older I drive far more carefully (like the proverbial grandmother that I am!), realizing that driving really is a privilege, not a right. But where does social responsibility come in? Aside from the situation described last week, where an individual hits and runs or steals a vehicle part, accidents can provide an opportunity to do something nice for another person – if you happen to see it occur.

Many people become rubber-neckers, curiously blocking traffic and often causing more accidents. Others become irritated at the delay in their busy lives and aggressively push their way through the traffic stoppage. A few stop to render aid. But how often do we stop and offer to act as a witness, even to an apparently minor accident?

The other day we were among the rush-hour crowd, eager to get home from work on a snowy Friday afternoon, when the car in front of us was suddenly struck by another vehicle that was going straight in a right-turn-only lane. Both cars immediately pulled to the side. We could have driven around the accident scene and continued on our way, particularly since traffic was heavy and everyone in a hurry to get out of the way. I refused to do so, however, and instead pulled over, found some scraps of paper and wrote our name and number on them, providing this information to both drivers. At that point I wasn’t completely sure who was at fault, but I’ve learned through hard experience just how important the role of a witness can be.

Years ago, at the age of sixteen, I was involved in a highway collision, an accident that could easily have cost my life. I was travelling at highway speed, when a farm truck suddenly pulled out from a field directly in front of me, travelling at an extremely slow rate. Although I had seen him waiting to enter the highway, I never dreamed he would pull out with me so close. When I tried to pass on the left to avoid a rear-end collision, he abruptly began to drift across the highway to the left, preparing to turn left into the next field only a few hundred feet ahead, seemingly unaware of my existence. I slammed on the brakes, which sent me into a spin, weaving back and forth across the highway. I fought to regain control, and might have successfully managed to straighten my car out into the proper lane and avoid an accident – except that the farmer, rather than complete the left turn he had started, which would have taken him out of my way, inexplicably decided to continue driving along the highway at the same slow rate of speed. When I swung my vehicle up out of the ditch, still struggling for control, there he was, in front of me again!

The collision that followed was not pretty, although by now I had slowed my vehicle enough so that it was not the deadly crash it could have been. In the gathering of people that followed the accident, several people came up to me and said they had seen the whole thing (it was a fairly busy highway). They stated absolutely that he was at fault and they were amazed that I had avoided a worse outcome. I was young and inexperienced and had never been in an accident before, so I didn’t think to get any names as witnesses. I was confident that I was not at fault and thought that was all I needed. I was to learn differently. In the court case that followed, responsibility ended up being assigned 50-50. Because I had no witnesses, it was my word against his, and since my vehicle had struck his, I was faulted.

Since that day, I learned the importance of getting a witness. I also learned the importance of being a witness, and this has been reinforced over the years in other situations where the word of an observer proved to be absolutely essential. It takes time and effort, of course, and many people are reluctant to get involved. This is particularly true if you witness other situations, such a violent crime. Some people have a very real fear that speaking up in court against a perpetrator could have serious personal repercussions. But it is so important and can mean so much to the individuals involved (not to mention ensure that the wrongdoer is punished for the crime). It may only be a matter of filling out a police report, or it may involve court appearances. Either way, it is our duty and social responsibility to get involved.

In the case of the accident we saw the other night, our witness testimony may have meant that the person at fault was held responsible, and the innocent party was not punished by her insurance company.* Without our testimony – who knows. The innocent driver was a young girl, and her word may not have held as much weight without corroboration (insurance companies are already very quick to blame young drivers and punish them with excessive rates).

*note: the insurance company later advised me that they have a formula they follow to determine at fault, and this is dependent on where the vehicle is struck, not necessarily on who broke the law. They did, however, tell me that our witness testimony would act in favour of the innocent party in other ways, and reduce the insurance penalty.

Most of us have probably seen signs posted at intersections, or ads placed in newspapers, asking for witnesses to an accident to please come forward. It is most likely that in these cases, individuals are being unfairly held to blame, and having a witness to the accident could make a huge difference – accident at- fault decisions may affect whether insurance will pay for a collision or whether demerit points go on an individual’s license, and can have a significant financial impact.

So the next time you happen to be witness to an accident, don’t hesitate to stop and offer your “expert” testimony, and provide the innocent party with your contact information. Don’t assume that it will be obvious to the insurance company who carries blame. And if you are ever unfortunate enough to find yourself involved in an accident, collect witness information immediately. If you have new drivers in your family, train them to do the same – it’s not something they will learn in their driver education courses, but it is an essential driving skill just the same.

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