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Roadside Assistance: A Question of Guilt and the Duty to Rescue

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"No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected." -- Julius
Caesar

Once in a while, we wake up in the morning and begin going about our daily routine, and then suddenly an unexpected traumatic experience occurs that either permanently transforms our lives or, to a lesser extent, has the impact of forever sticking in our psyche until we die.

I feel compelled to write about such a recent experience.

I'll immediately confess that I'm sharing this with you, not as a columnist with a certain point of view, but as a therapeutic means to help me understand my unresolved unease revolving around how I reacted to such an incident.

Instead of giving an opinion, I'm instead asking my readers for one.

Here's the scenario: It's Labor Day at about 5 p.m. and I am taking my son and his friend, who are home for a visit, back to a train station an hour away to catch a 7:15 train. First, we stopped at a local sub shop to pick up some early dinner, but it was closed, so my son decided to try to catch the earlier 6:15 train.

An hour later, we are about 25 minutes away from the train station on a busy interstate when I notice a fully-loaded logging truck up ahead in the right lane. Generally, I hate driving behind or alongside trucks on the highway because I don't feel safe around them. And this one caught my attention because of its heavy load and the large scissor type crane in the back. And as I sped up to pass this truck, I even commented to my passengers about the weight of the logs and the bed's capacity to handle such weight.

We were about two-three minutes past the truck when I heard a very loud bang from behind. I looked in the mirror and saw the logging truck swaying uncontrollably side-to-side on the road and the scissors flying in the air. I immediately say, "Holy shit, turn around," and then in slow-motion, dream-like reality, the truck fell on its side and the logs start flying over it and bouncing down the road.

I looked back to the road in front of me and sped up. I was afraid that the bouncing logs were going to catch up to my car and crush us. I then turned to my son in the front passenger seat, who was totally paralyzed looking backward, and said, "Call 9-1-1." I had to repeat, "Call 9-1-1," again. He then turned around, dialed his iPhone and was on, talking with a 9-1-1 operator. All this within seconds after the accident.

Now, the moral dilemma:

I keep asking myself, as that accident continues to replay in my head, if I should have stopped the car and ran the mile down the road to assist in the aftermath.

Generally, there's no legal duty to rescue another in need.

If I had caused the accident, that would have been different. There's a common law doctrine called a, "duty to rescue," that requires a person who created the hazardous situation that caused peril, to help a victim. Also, if the person has a special relationship with an incapacitated or injured person -- such as a spouse or parent or others with special training for such situations such as emergency workers -- they are required to rescue the victim.

So legally, there was no duty for me to stop.

There are also statutes on the books called, "Good Samaritan," laws that protect those without the duty to rescue to actually help an injured or incapacitated victim from any liability that may arise from such action.

So I would have been held harmless if I had run down the road and done something that could have been construed as worsening the situation.

But despite no legal obligation to do so, and later assurances from law enforcement and EMT, friends and wise relatives who are all in unanimous agreement that I did the right thing by just having my son call 9-1-1 -- I continue to question whether I should have been a Good (or better) Samaritan.

I question if I failed morally to act on that an innate code that is programmed into our consciousness that defines in very simplistic terms of right and wrong, a responsibility to help or rescue another both generally and particularly in catastrophic situations like that accident.

Despite such DNA programming, various religious teachings and even laws meant to encourage such behavior too, we have been more and more conditioned by our modern society to resist that altruistic impulse to help.

Add in the ordinariness of violent accidental behavior in our media and news, the commonness of bloody traffic accidents in our lives and the evolution of a callous, socially acceptable narcissistic disregard for one another, and most of us, including me, just keep on driving down the road.

Sadly, a little bit of me hard-heartedly just didn't want to get involved for hours in the aftermath, and have my son miss his train too.

And please don't think I was totally callous. I thought for an instant about stopping the car and running down that highway, but I fought back that impulse and kept driving not totally because of that conditioning, but because of fear too.

Mainly, I was afraid of what I would see and that my passengers would be badly traumatized by the sight of crushed cars and trucks and twisted, bloodied, bodies lying in the road.

So even after everyone I asked told me afterward that calling 9-1-1 was more than enough, and even finding out that there were no fatalities, or even any injuries as a result of the accident, my perceived moral failure continues to trouble me, and probably will for the rest of my life.

So I humbly ask this simple question: Should I feel guilty for not stopping? Comment below.