Thursday, December 19, 2013

Gimme Some Truth

Some people suck.

That's quite a revelation, I'm sure. But really, the extent to which certain folks will flat-out lie to avoid the direct result of their own negligence is fairly mindblowing at times.

It was sometime in the mid 1980s and I was driving through the checkerboard grid of streets -- punctuated by intersections with four-way stops -- that is Center City Philadelphia. I watched the guy in front of me come to a full stop at one of those very intersections and then POW! Out of nowhere, an elderly white woman drove her car straight through the stop sign on the cross street without pausing at all and plowed into the front side panel of his car. They got out and started to exchange info, and I had a thought: "I am the only other person who saw this accident. What if that woman lies about what happened?"

So I pulled over too, and scribbled my name and number on a piece of paper and told the young African-American man driving the car that had been in front of me, "Hey, if you end up needing a witness, call me, or give my number to insurance. That lady totally ran that stop sign."

He didn't say much at the time. In fact, I don't even think he thanked me. The two drivers exchanged insurance info and I drove off. The woman was already howling about the damage to her car. His was damaged much worse, but he seemed pretty calm.

The next week an insurance investigator contacted me. He told me that both drivers were denying responsibility, each claiming that the other ran a stop sign. He interviewed me, got my version and assured me that he couldn't see how the guy would be found at fault. "You are the only disinterested witness and your story is very clear."

A couple nights later my phone rang. It was the dude from the car in front of me. He told me that the insurance companies were finding her to be 100% at fault. That was good news. But it was what he said next that stuck with me all these years: "Hey man, I just wanted to call and say thank you. I don't know why you took the time to stop like you did, but it was a very nice thing to do, and I know for sure that if you hadn't, there is no way they would have believed me. No one ever believes the young black guy."

"No one ever believes _____." You probably can fill in that blank with all sorts of descriptions of people. In a traffic accident, I am thinking that, regardless of fault, no one ever believes the kid against the adult, the young black guy against the older white woman, the undocumented alien driving a beater against the Lexus-driving lawyer. Name the scenario, and, unless somebody who doesn't have a dog in that fight steps up and says what really happens, chances are most of those accidents are going to get charged to both drivers, or, even worse, against the less "favored" one regardless of what really happened.

I try hard to suppress my natural tendency to assume the worst about people, but when it comes to driving a car and the avoidance of responsibility, it seems like that instinct is too often dead-on.

This issue all came up again yesterday. Dumbfounded, I watched a car nearly destroy another one by running a traffic light that had been red for four to five seconds. A cop arrived on the scene so quickly that I assumed he had it all under control. And the offending driver had somehow avoided a catastrophic crash at the last second, standing on her brakes to the point that the intersection was filled with acrid smoke. It ended up only being a minor collision, so my thought was that my observations weren't relevant. The cop was on it. I drove on home.

But this morning, I remembered that mid-'80s incident. And I particularly remembered that older woman's attempt to avoid responsibility. And I got a bad feeling. I assumed the worst. Again.

I contacted the cops to see if they wanted my version. Sure enough, I was told, "The woman driving the smaller car" -- the one that ran the red light -- "says her light was not red." I told the officer the real deal, and he took my statement and thanked me profusely. As another cop I know told me, he-said/she-said cases are tough on law enforcement. Disinterested witnesses stepping up are the key to uncovering the truth.

So it all comes down to a simple phrase: do the right thing. Think about who you are and where you'd fit into these scenarios no matter whether you were the driver at fault, or the aggrieved one. Would you try to blame the other guy, even if you were the one who was in the wrong? Or would you fess up and accept responsibility? If you saw it happen, would you call it in? Or would you just figure that was someone else's job? Lots of people talk about fostering a sense of community. Are you doing more than just talking?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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