The photograph of a man dying on the streets of Delhi after suffering injuries in a motor accident was disturbing enough. What made it worse was people passing by and not stopping to help — one stole his mobile phone. This raises the question of where public responsibility to help someone in danger or distress begins or ends.
In India, the Supreme Court has sanctioned the guidelines issued by the Centre to protect those who help — good Samaritans — from harassment by the police and in creating a supportive legal and ethical environment. Harassment by the police and possible involvement in legal cases are major reasons why people chose not to get involved in helping a person in need on the streets.
The latest case shows that the revised guidelines have not created a greater urge to help; rather people would still prefer to leave well along. The Law Commission has said at least 50% of those killed in road accidents could have been saved if they had got help in time. For this bystanders or those passing by play a crucial role. In past studies, we have seen that three out of four people don’t come forward to help fearing legal hassles.
This raises the issue of whether or not India should consider following the practice in some countries where the failure to help a person in distress is actually a punishable offence. In France, for example, the failure to render assistance to a person in danger attracts a fine and imprisonment and the payment of pecuniary compensation to the victim. The photographers at the site of the crash where Princess Diana died were investigated for non-assistance to a person in danger.
In Denmark a person has to comply with all reasonable requests for assistance by a public authority when a person’s life or well being is at risk. The the major countries which prescribe penalties for failure to help are Belgium, Austria, Germany, Greece, Russia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Brazil and Argentina.
Of course, in all these countries there is the proviso that the person rendering assistance should not, by doing so, put himself in a position of danger. In addition to considering such a law, which will of course require much debate and discussion here, efforts also must be made wherever possible to reduce the risk factors.
In most cities, pedestrians are at risk as there are no footpaths. Traffic rules are usually observed in the breach. People are resistant to wearing protective gear like helmets and the authorities are not strict enough about wearing seat belts. These if strictly enforced will lessen deaths and injuries. Many of these issues should be looked at again, especially the one regarding a punitive law if our roads are to be made a little safer.