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A few years ago, a star collegiate football player was praised by the news media for his actions at the scene of an automobile accident. He was virtually declared a hero for pulling some injured persons from their wrecked car while others stood by, doing nothing. His actions were viewed as daring, decisive, and right. In contrast, the lack of action by bystanders was viewed with disdain by the media. In reality, both the reaction of the football hero, and the bystanders may have been wrong.
Rarely is impulsive action by "good Samaritans" or apathy by bystanders the best way to help victims of auto accidents. You might drive for decades and never be one of the first persons at the scene of a serious accident. On the other hand, if you do ever come across that accident, there are precautions you should take.
Bizarre as it may seem, what you do at the scene of an accident can have long-range consequences. As prominent California attorney William Bradley points out: "The foremost question the good Samaritan should ask is, 'can I leave this accident victim better or in at least the same condition as I found him?' "
Even with the best intentions, if an accident victim's injuries are made worse by your "help," you could be liable for his/her additional injuries.
Most states have "Good Samaritan" laws to protect from legal action those who give aid at an accident. But not everybody is covered. "Some [states] apply them only to citizens rendering assistance to auto accident victims," attorney James O. Page points out. Still other states give protection only to certified emergency personnel.
If a car smashes into a utility pole, and the driver isn't making any effort to get out, you might think the best thing to do is drag him from the wreck. Yet that's usually not the best thing to do. Unless there is some other danger, such as fire, victims should not be moved by bystanders.
Most experts say that at the scene of most accidents, the first thoughts should be, "What can I do to protect victims from sustaining additional injuries?" Pausing for a few seconds, literally, and looking over the situation, you'll probably see several things that should be done before caring for victims.
For example, if a car skids on a turn, crashes into the guard rail, and then flips on its side, what should you do first? There are probably several "good" courses of action.
Safety experts, however, generally recommend you park your car safely out of the traffic lanes, and turn on your emergency flashers. Then warn on-coming traffic that there is an accident ahead by sending other bystanders to flag down traffic approaching the accident scene.
Of course, "flagmen" need to stay out of the traffic lanes. Setting out road flares several hundred feet on either side of the accident is also a good first step--provided there's no danger of fire from leaking fuel.
An accident victim laying in the road is especially vulnerable. Nevertheless, it's usually best not to move him. Such victims can be protected from traffic by positioning vehicles on both sides, creating protective "barriers." Barrier vehicles should have their four-way flashers turned on.
Emergency help--police, fire, and ambulance--should be called promptly. Ask several passing motorists, going in opposite directions, and bystanders, too, to call for help. Asking several people is important in case a cell phone isn't handy. The more people you ask to call for help, the more likely the call will be made.
It's better to have an accident reported by two or three people than not at all because somebody didn't find a phone. A cellular phone, or CB radio also can be used to summon help.
Turn off the ignition switches on vehicles involved in the accident to reduce the risk of fire.
It takes a couple of people just a minute or two to adequately protect victims. It probably took you longer to read these paragraphs than it would actually take to carry out the tasks.
Before attempting to render aid to victims, Bradley says, "If the accident victim is conscious, ask if he wants assistance. If he rejects an offer of help, for any reason, do not aid him." As difficult as it might be, wait for professional help to arrive. If you give aid when a person says he doesn't want it, you might be vulnerable under Good Samaritan laws.
A California Highway Patrolman told me about an accident he once handled where a deaf-mute was thrown from his car in a collision. Well-meaning bystanders moved him from a ditch where he had landed to the edge of the road, despite the speechless man's frantic pointing to his back and shaking his head "no." Fortunately, his back wasn't broken in the accident. Had it been, their action could have resulted in permanent, disabling injuries.
Even if an accident victim says "yes, help me," you still need to be cautious. If there is no immediate danger, why move him? It's usually best to wait for professional help to arrive.
Eighty percent of those hurt in traffic accidents have head injuries. If a person has a head injury, you should assume he also has neck and back injuries.
Bandaging wounds, attempting to splint broken bones, or using more advanced first-aid techniques, especially if professional help is on the way, isn't generally recommended. If an injury is obviously life threatening, and waiting for help would endanger a life, then necessary action probably should be taken.
For instance, if a victim has stopped breathing, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR (if you're trained in it) becomes vital. If, on the other hand, the person merely lapsed into unconsciousness but is still breathing normally, heroic measures probably aren't warranted.
If it seems there's little you can do for an accident victim, that isn't so. You can do several "safe" things.
? Cover a victim with a coat or blanket to keep him warm and to prevent shock.
? Shade him from the sun or protect the victim from falling rain to make the victim more comfortable while waiting for the ambulance.
? Talk to victims, reassure them help is on the way. Be encouraging.
? Hold his hand while waiting for the ambulance. While this might not seem like much, it can do a lot for an injured person's sense of survival.
? Use a clean cloth as a compress to stop the flow of blood from a serious wound. In the case of head wounds, however, experts suggest you use as light a pressure as possible because he could have a fractured skull.
What if the car bursts into flames, and there are injured persons in it? Most experts agree that pulling a person from a flaming car, even if it aggravates his injuries would certainly be "leaving the persons better off than you found him."
When it comes to saving a life, most people wouldn't even worry about legal liabilities. As Page points out, "Based on the total lack of reported cases, I would say the potential [for being sued] ranges between slim and none."
Traffic accidents are terrible things. They can be traumatic for victims and bystanders alike. Still, if you ever have to "take charge" at the scene of an accident, keep in mind that your primary job is to help protect the victims until professional help arrives--not treat their injuries.
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