Be more than a bystander

I was driving on the freeway on a mountain pass when I came around a curve and spotted a crash. The car was off of the freeway on the right-hand-side bank, facing the wrong way, hazard lights flashing. I didn’t have time to see if anyone was in it before I was headed into the next curve, but it was pretty clear from first glance that it was wedged into the bank pretty solidly and would at least need some help getting unstuck.

Driving alone, I was surrounded by vehicles that I reasoned surely had a passenger who could call about the crash. With passes, it’s not positive that whoever had been driving that car would get cellphone reception, providing that person had a cellphone. Maybe it was an old crash, I reasoned, and the person had already been helped. Was I sure someone was in the vehicle? Someone would call. Someone would stop.

But I’d recently seen this video about the importance of men as bystanders or active participants in changing the culture of acceptable violence in society. It’s an excellent talk that has nothing to do with car crashes.


Watching the video had reminded me of the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon where having others around dilutes the feeling of responsibility in individuals. In it, people who might otherwise act hold back because they figure that someone else will do something. Just like I was thinking in my car on the interstate.

I pulled off the freeway at the next ramp so that I could safely dial 911. I told the dispatcher where the crash was and what details I’d seen, and she said they would send someone if the crash had not already been investigated. That told me that she hadn’t heard about the crash from any of the other drivers just then. Moments later, I was back on my way north. Not long after that, I saw a state trooper, lights flashing, speeding to the south. Could have been to help with the crash. Could have been going to another call. I’ll never know. I don’t need to know. I wasn’t calling just for the driver of the crash. I was also calling for me and for us.

If it were me in that car, I’d want someone to call. That’s the social contract that makes it possible for me to get into a vehicle all by myself and travel hundreds of miles from anyone I know who has any personal reason to help me if something happens. A compassionate society must be made up of more than bystanders.

Want to read more the bystander effect in society? Consider Kathleen Parker’s opinion on rape convictions in Steubenville and this in-depth piece from the Greater Good Science Center exploring altruism and inaction.

— Patricia S.

What do you think? Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. See for the comment policy.