Good Samaritans Don't Help Accident Victims For Fear the Law Won’t Back Them

Passersby often get cold feet about helping accident victims because people want to avoid trouble with the police, hospitals and courts.

CCTV camera footage of an e-rickshaw driver getting hit in a road accident and then bleeding to death on August 11 has left many shaken. Matibool, the e-rickshaw driver, was knocked down by a tempo, whose driver got off to check on him, but left without taking the man to a hospital. After that, nearly 50 people and over 400 vehicles passed by as the accident victim bled to death.

What was it that prevented all these people from helping the hapless victim? Is it still the old fear of being questioned by the hospital staff and police, then doing the rounds of courts or is it just plain simple apathy? As someone aptly asked, “the Good Samaritan law for protection of those who help is there now, but are there any good people around?”

The answer – as per those who are fighting to protect good samaritans – is yes, there are many Indians who will still go out of their way to help those in need. Most recently, several villagers from Bhilwara district, Rajasthan, rescued about 50 children from drowning after their bus was swept away in the surging waters of the Palka river. However, when it comes to rescuing accident victims or victims of violence, bystanders usually get cold feet.

Providing legal teeth

While the Supreme Court provided legal teeth to committee-suggested guidelines for protecting good samaritans in March this year, the judgment was not the end of the matter. The judgment requires the Centre and states to bring enabling legislations and meet these guidelines, and that is where progress has been tardy.

The Supreme Court invoked Article 141 of the constitution to make the guidelines binding on all the states and union territories (UTs) of India. They now have the force of law and mandate adherence from state and UT authorities. Since the police, hospitals and local courts count as state subjects under List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Indian constitution, states need to legislate and create their own acts for creating a framework for implementing the Supreme Court judgment’s guidelines and also establishing a measure of accountability for enforcing these guidelines.

While some of the states have taken the lead in this respect – Karnataka​, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Odisha and Rajasthan are already working on such proposals – others have been moving slowly, according to SaveLife Foundation, whose petition precipitated the landmark Supreme Court judgment.

In March this year, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to protect good samaritans who help road accident victims.

This order provided legal teeth to 12 guidelines formulated by the Centre that demanded protection for those saving accident victims.

A  three-member committee appointed by the apex court in 2014 – chaired by former judge K.S. Radhakrishnan and comprising S. Sundar, the road transport ministry’s former secretary and Nitish Mittal –  suggested setting up state road safety councils, evolving a protocol for the identification and removal of “blackspots”, monitoring execution to gauge the effectiveness of the action taken and strengthening law enforcement for issues such drunken driving, over-speeding, red light jumping, and helmet and seat belt laws.

The apex court’s decision was also significant because the Centre had always claimed to experience difficultly in enforcing guidelines without any statutory backing. With the court order in place, the guidelines and standard operating procedures became binding on all states and union territories.

But that was only half the battle won. As Piyush Tewari of SaveLifeFoundation noted, “The onus is now on the state governments and union territories to ensure the implementation of these guidelines.”

Public awareness

On the future course of action, he stated that “in order to ensure the effective implementation of the guidelines and SOPs, it is imperative that a comprehensive good samaritan law is enacted at the Central and state level,” as the guidelines were temporary in nature.

Tewari also added “the next challenge is to get this information to the last mile. Lives will get saved only when people on the road are aware of these new rights they have.” The Matibool episode makes it clear that the message has not spread. Delhi’s government too is yet to start work on enacting legislation to protect good samaritans.

As Saji Cherian, director of operations at the foundation said, “The role of passersby is crucial in saving an accident victim’s life and now with the Supreme Court judgment of March 30, India has a good samaritan law that protects bystanders, who help the injured, from legal and procedural hassles. The government should ensure that people know about their new right through a sustained​ ​mass awareness ​campaign.​ ​So long as the word does not go out from the government, bystanders will continue to fear harassment from authorities.”

The foundation is still receiving complaints from people about police harassing them to come forth and depose in accident cases, even when they are not willing to do so. “This is because the message about the Supreme Court ruling has not been passed on adequately to the police, hospitals and government officials, said a spokesperson.

Apprehensive samaritans

There are some other issues, which also need to be tackled simultaneously, the Foundation said. “There is also a bigger problem of ​the lack of emergency medical assistance for road crash victims in the country. Emergency Medical Services (EMS), including ambulances and paramedics, are rare or non-existent in most parts of India. Even in major cities, traffic and road conditions delay the arrival of help.”

To improve the response mechanism, it said, 8,000 police personnel have been trained as first-responders on the ground, across Delhi, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, through the Jeevan Rakshak Program. However, when it comes to the general public helping out the road accident victims, traditionally the response has been timid for a variety of reasons.

According to the Study on Impediments to Bystander Care in India, which was conducted by TNS India for the Savelife Foundation – the Indian Journal of Surgery reported in 2006 that 80% of road accident victims in India do not receive any emergency medical care within the critical first hour of an accident. Doctors pointed out that at least 50% of the fatalities can be averted if victims are admitted within the first one hour of an accident and this was also stated in a Law Commission of India report.

The study revealed that 36% of all bystanders feel that their responsibility ends with calling the emergency number. People generally wanted to avoid any trouble with the police, hospital and courts. This was more the case with people coming from lower socio-economic categories, the survey stated, adding that they were “often victimised by the police or the hospital staff”.

“The prevailing mood was one of apprehension with the entire process of helping someone” and “police trouble was often mentioned as the major reason that hinders people from coming forward to help injured victims”, it stated.

A high proportion of bystanders – 77% – who reported that they were unlikely to come forward to help a severely injured victim on the roadside (irrespective of whether they were alone or otherwise) harboured the opinion that taking an accident victim to the hospital leads to a lot of problems as hospitals detain Good Samaritans till the police arrive and also demand payment for the victim’s treatment.

An even higher proportion of such bystanders – 88% – were of the opinion that taking an accident victim to the hospital leads to a lot of problems because of legal hassles and repeated questioning by the police.

In the years since and as the Matibool episode has illustrated, there has hardly been any change in the approach of bystanders towards accident victims.

In light of these fears of bystanders, it said, it is essential the Centre and the states expedite the enactment of their respective good samaritan laws as “not only will such a step ensure the establishment of a strong chain of survival beginning with a bystander, continuing in an ambulance and concluding in a hospital, but also convey to the people of India that the Government is willing to acknowledge their contribution in saving precious lives.”