What Should You Do If You Witness A Car Crash?

Good Samaritan? Read this first.

For most people, witnessing a highway crash means stopping what they're doing and assisting however way they can, whether that means calling authorities, helping to push disabled vehicles off the road, warning and diverting oncoming traffic, or providing lifesaving measures.

The rewards for those helping distressed and/or injured strangers can vary, however.

In September, a Boston city worker witnessed a taxi leave the road and smash into a tree, badly injuring the passenger. The worker ran to help and ended up pulling the passenger out of the car moments before the vehicle turned into a fireball. The passenger is recovering and the local fire chief publicly praised the Good Samaritan's actions.

California resident Lisa Torti, on the other hand, received no such praise in 2004 after she pulled a friend out of a wrecked car that she thought was going to explode. Sued by the former friend who claimed Torti yanked her "like a rag doll," leaving her a paraplegic, the case made national headlines two years ago when California's 1980 Emergency Medical Service Act, protecting Good Samaritans from lawsuits, was challenged by the victim's lawyers. The courts ultimately ruled 4-3 that only those administering professional medical care have immunity, and the case proceeded. But in August of 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzegger signed Assembly Bill 83, extending protection to all Californians who assist victims during crashes, effective immediately, so the Torti case never went to trial.

If you find yourself the witness of an accident, here are six key tips to keep in mind. The following are the steps you should take when you see a vehicle collision:

- If you're the first person at a vehicle crash, pull completely off the road, preferably 100 feet or more away from the collision. Turn on your emergency flashers. Emergency personnel have to be able to see the collision and stop next to it for easy access.

- Check to see if anyone is injured. Keep your distance from the vehicle, however, and don't touch any of the people in the accident. At this point you are just trying to assess what happened.

- Call 9-1-1. If another person stops to help, ask that person to call 9-1-1. The person calling 9-1-1 must be ready to answer questions and provide as much information as they can, such as the location of the emergency (cross streets, freeway on/off ramp information) and how many people need help (is anyone bleeding, unconscious, or without a pulse?).

- Help anyone who is not already walking around and talking. Do not move an injured person unless he or she is in a burning vehicle or in other danger. Moving someone incorrectly often makes an injury worse.

- If possible, assist the driver of the wrecked vehicle in moving the car out of the traffic lane. Do not drive the vehicle yourself unless instructed to do so by a police officer or emergency worker.

- If you happen to have a camera on you, you will be doing the drivers of the accident a service by taking a few pictures. Be prepared to hand these over to law enforcement or the drivers themselves.

What are your obligations and liabilities if you come across a crash and want to help? It varies state-to-state; HeartSafe America provides an official list.

My personal experience is practical. I'll always pull over and I'll always help – or at least try.
Last week I was running on the pedestrian path next to the West Side Highway in my Manhattan neighborhood after dark and I came upon a tractor trailer who had tried to make it under an underpass and gotten stuck. North side traffic was severely backed up because this trucker was blocking two lanes – trucks, vans and semis aren't allowed on the highway partly for that reason. I saw him get out of his cab and flag down a car, and the car slowed and stopped right next to the driver's door of the truck. Now all three lanes were completely blocked.

The conversation went on a good 30 seconds as the chorus of horns started blowing behind them. I jogged over and, pointing to a spot out of the line of traffic and said to the car driver, "Hi, maybe you want to pull your car in front of the truck and have this conversation - do you see all those thousands of cars behind you?

They both looked at me as though I was a cow that had wandered onto the highway, and turned back to their conversation. I shrugged and jogged off. I'm not a cop, after all.

People react differently in situations like these. In most cases you will find people willing to help, but you need to make sure you are smart about how you lend a land. Keep our tips in mind and you'll be in a good position to help without getting yourself in trouble.

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