Dear Tom and Ray:
Driving on the highway at 12:30 a.m. recently, we are in the middle lane and we come over the crest of a slight hill. There is a car stopped at an angle across the left and middle lanes. Clearly, there has been an accident. I slow down, swerve into the right lane and dodge a piece of debris. As I am doing this, slightly behind us a truck rear-ends a car that slowed down to avoid the accident. Off to the left and off to the right are two cars on the grass; presumably, they also swerved off the road to avoid the accident. My wife calls 911 on the cell phone to report the accident. Moments later, we see a police car responding to our call. The good Samaritan instinct in me tells me that I should have stopped, and even though I have no medical training, I could have at least popped a couple of flares to warn drivers coming over the hill. On the other hand, the safety-first instinct tells me that to stop the car in the dark, even on the grass, with my wife and two children aboard, would have been an invitation to make a bad situation worse. The way the cars were flying all over the highway, there was NO safe place to pull off, unless I drove way past the scene and ran back. What should I have done? -- Peter
TOM: We fully absolve you, Peter. You did exactly the right thing. You said yourself that there was no safe place to stop. You not only would have put your family in danger, but you could have created another obstacle for drivers arriving behind you.
RAY: And had you stopped a half-mile down the road and walked back in the dark, you easily could have been hit by another car swerving onto the grass to avoid the accident scene. So that's not a good idea, either.
TOM: So in this case, having a passenger (your wife) call for help on a cell phone was exactly the right thing to do.
RAY: In general, if you come upon an accident scene, here are the things to consider: Can I stop safely, without endangering myself or my passengers? Can I stop without making it harder for others to avoid the accident or debris? Do I actually have any skills to offer (other than to call for help)? Often, the best thing you can do is simply contact emergency-services personnel and let them do what they do professionally. If you have any question about the safety of stopping, we recommend you just call 911 and stay out of the way.
TOM: So your "save-my-sorry-butt" instinct (what did you call it? "Safety-first"?) was the right one here, Peter. You are a good Samaritan. And congratulations on driving at a reasonable-enough speed so you were able to see the accident ahead and react safely to it in the first place.