An Accident

Witnessing a harrowing accident, I realized that I haven’t trained in emergency first aid since Boy Scouts and my car has only a primitive medical kit. I’m going to correct these oversights. Maybe you should, too.

I witnessed a harrowing motorcycle accident yesterday on I-57 North, just south of Chicago. Two guys weaved through traffic past me, going maybe 80mph. They passed me so close that I flinched as one nearly ripped out my driver-side mirror.

One of the riders went down maybe 30 seconds later, perhaps ½ mile ahead of me. He had whipped onto the shoulder trying to pass someone on the right. Maybe he hit some leaves or some junk that ended up on the side of the road. The motorcycle was totaled and had scored quite a path along the ground and along the roadside barrier.

The rider himself was maybe 100 feet ahead, supine near the shoulder grooves. He was raising his right hand a few inches and then lowering it again. He was wearing a helmet. He didn’t look cut up, but I don’t know whether he will survive. I called 9-1-1. Right at that moment, the police arrived. Some guys pulled up too. They looked like his buddies. Distraught, they raced over to him.

I don’t know what cosmic significance can be drawn from this scene. If he survives, his helmet will deserve credit. So would decent highway safety engineering, which protected him from hitting light poles and other deadly obstacles. Many public health studies indicate that such investments are often neglected; they are much more cost-effective than typical medical interventions. I’m not sure what could have protected this young man from the testosteronic urge to drive like a maniac one fine Sunday afternoon.

A crowd of people and the police officers tended to him, waiting for the ambulance. Knowing that I had nothing to contribute, I felt funny, but I drove on.

What should one learn from witnessing tragedy befall a reckless stranger? One immediate thought came to mind. I haven’t trained in emergency first aid since Boy Scouts. My trunk contains a tiny first aid kit suitable for minor cuts and bug bites, but that would be of little value for something worse. Before this summer is out, I’m going to correct these oversights. Maybe you should, too.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

18 thoughts on “An Accident”

  1. Cosmic significance? possibly none, other than the ought-to-be-obvious observation that recklessness is no match for the laws of physics. And I say this as one who has ridden motorcycles for closing on forty years, and hope to for another twenty or so. Some accidents cannot be avoided by the rider–but there is something about the combination of a sunny day, a few horsepower to spare and a conviction that one will live forever that encourages some riders to push far past the limits of sane riding behavior–and you just saw the consequences.

    Your last idea is a good one. I have been patched up by passers-by once or twice, and was (and remain) thankful that they had the needful in their vehicles. My own first-aid kit is pretty large and includes a light-duty splint, FWIW. But my training, too, is a little rusty, so it's time to brush up.

  2. I don't think it's safe to hardly touch anyone lying injured – safe for you! This is a sue-happy place, and you're likely to be sued.

    I've heard og "good Samaritan" laws, but I'm no expert.

    I always thought that single=payer universal health insurance would ease a lot of this. I would actually expect auto insurance liability rates to go down in my way of how such public health care would impact our society. Business insurance for employees should go down. Homeowner liability insurance, too.

    Then we can all be in this together, our major costs are covered, and we all live together better.

    I've always expected a true universal health insurande would have these wonderful manifestations.

  3. Not much you could do with any sort of first aid kit in a case like that. You'll have a better probability of saving a life by carrying a blanket and 5 gallons of water. That and knowing your heimlich and CPR.

  4. Events like this bring out the (normally deeply hidden) Republican in me. When I hear of this kind of behavior by young men, all I can think: "organ donor."

  5. How shocking this scene must have been to you. I hope you won't mind my following up with a small comment.

    Even in a situation like this, it's greatly helpful for witnesses such as yourself to stay long enough to give a statement and contact info to police officers. It won't help with the medical treatment, obviously. But there could be police investigations and lawsuits where your observations (about the rider's reckless driving) would be important.

    One of the most frustrating things for me as a prosecutor is the number of cases where witnesses essentially disappear once the police come. They don't realize that there's a world of difference between the police arriving and our successful closure of the case. The latter sometimes requires a number of witnesses who each think themselves unimportant, but who collectively add important details. (One has a description of a gunman's clothing; another gives the description of the car that rushed away; a third could say she heard just 2 gunshots; etc etc.)

  6. This is going to sound heartless, but as a taxpayer I resist the idea that all highways should be engineered to the point of making them safe for reckless motorcycle riders. I question your assertion that that would be cheaper than the medical bills of accident victims. And I'm a big liberal!

  7. I ride a motorcycle. I've taken a first aid and CPR course that addresses motorcycle accident issues on multiple occasions (CPR certification requires a refresher course and the FA and m/c specific info is also worth refreshing).

    Number one thing is to control the accident scene. safely direct traffic around the accident. Do not put yourself at risk.

    Next assess whether the accident victim is breathing. If they are it is important to keep their cervical spine immobile until it can be evaluated by medical personnel. Learn how to do this.

    If they are not breathing it is possible to remove a helmet while maintaining C-spine integrity. It requires two people to do this and don't try it without training.

  8. I think we should remember that there is value in the reckless/thrillseeking personality type, in addition to the social costs.

    They're the ones that dig us out if we fall down a well or get lost hiking. Back when we lived in caves they were probably very handy people.

  9. I saw a motorcycle accident once and, going on 30 years later, it is still shocking to think about. I think at least one of the people involved died, or at least, I can't imagine how they lived. The only thing I felt like I could do was to call the police. In a case like that, being an anonymous angel is sometimes the best you can do.

  10. In response to "A thought" at 4:55: It's not really very safe to be around cops. Those are the people who can shoot, tase, or arrest me with absolute impunity (because I'm not a prosecutor, unlike you). A cop can arrest me, and can get me convicted of a crime on nothing more than his/her word, and even just having been arrested (nevermind convicted) makes the rest of one's life harder, e.g., when trying to get a good job. So, common sense as I understand it basically says stay the hell away from cops, except on the rare occasions when I might need protection from someone even more dangerous. If that's inconvenient for you as a prosecutor because it makes it hard to get information from the public, then I'd urge you to do something about it by spending more of your time prosecuting cops.

  11. Tom,

    Of course you are right: citizens should generally avoid cops. But prosecutors also have reason to be afraid of cops. They may be a bit safer on the street than you and me. But they–and judges–are at the crosshairs of police unions and lawnorder politicos.

    To be fair to cops, most of them are trying to do a noble and dirty job as well as they can. But, like anybody else, they don't want any kind of outside accountability. They just happen to be more effective at insulating themselves from accountability than the rest of us.

  12. "Knowing that I had nothing to contribute, I felt funny, but I drove on." An unintentional parable of the modern liberal driving our society off a cliff.

    I note that you weren't too out of sorts to take a happy snap of the traumatic carnage. What an opportunity to bolster a blog about "cosmic significance" I wonder what kind of traffic hazard your photojournlist venture caused.

  13. I was knocked senseless by a bicycle *on the sidewalk* in London in early June.

    Next 8 hours are a blank to me. In the ER, I could not recognize my wife, apparently (but could name her cats).

    Woke up in hospital with a complete blank on the preceding 8 hours, bruises on my left side (still feeling them 7 weeks later), 4 stiches on my head etc.

    Bystanders rushed to help, police came, (cyclist rode off, predictably– untraceable).

    Interesting time in ER (apparently) with burly ambulancemen holding me, strapped due to possible neck fracture, and emptying my stomache contents in a horizontal spew. The CAT scans are processed in Australia — outsourcing, but to another developed country, we do theirs when their radiology departments are closed.

    Again not sure what can be learned from this but:

    – hope there are bystanders

    – hope their mobile phones work

    – life is a thinner thread than we would like

    All that wonderful safety equipment and rules may have protected the bicyclist but it did not protect the pedestrian. Had I been my elderly mother's age, I would have died.

  14. Barbara

    30 years ago calling the police took real effort: find phonebox, make call. When i was assaulted and (temporarily) blinded in one eye, I couldn't get anyone to relinquish a payphone to me– blood pouring down my face, they just blanked me out.

    Nowadays its as simple as dialing 911. BUT I caution you from the London bombs: when it's really bad, the only phones that work are the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). That's why I still have a landline (works even when the power is out). For 4 hours in London after 7/7/05, only the landlines worked (not well, but they worked).

    I saw a man burn to death in front of me once (crowd scene the ambulance arrived in seconds). It's not pretty, and you never forget it.


  15. Joe S

    That young man is far more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democrat. Real men vote Tory. Individual responsibility et al. It's not macho to vote for parties of collective social responsibility.

    Of course a liberal would argue for more compulsion in organ donation. My great disappointment with Mr 'I have a new pancreas' Steve Jobs is that every Apple Product does not now come with an organ donor card (or does it?). What a great way to reach the young.

    It's liberals who create hospitals that don't ask for insurance codes, but just treat. It's liberals who create nasty laws that we must wear safety helmets.

  16. John

    Which social disaster have liberals just looked in the rear view mirror and driven on?

    Would that be discrimination and segregation against blacks?

    The unavailability of health care to the poorest Americans?

    Civil rights of homosexuals?


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