Changing the change

I will remember the moment and carry its picture in my head to my dying day. Reporting for the Fort Lauderdale News, I was on assignment in Clearwater, covering an annual conference of mayors, city and county commissioners and city managers. After checking in at my hotel, I drove north on U.S. 19 in search of some dinner. The four-lane highway, divided by a wide grassy median, was dark, and the flashing lights of a State Trooper’s car pierced the night. He was on the opposite side, heading south, but instinctively I eased my speed a bit.

Suddenly, two girls on a bike appeared directly ahead of me. I slammed on the brakes and watched the bike and its contents fly across the hood and up my windshield. I pulled over and rushed back to find two teenage girls writhing in the roadside grass, weeping. “Don’t move!” I told them. “I’ll get help!” and took off running back toward that trooper. Must have been a mile at least. He told me to get in, and we drove back toward the girls as he radioed for medical help.

The girls were running away from home, two of them on a bicycle with no lights. Every time I tried to close my eyes and go to sleep that night, I saw the bike and those two girls flying up my windshield. I still see them today.

It must have been midnight when the phone in my hotel room rang. It was the mother of one of the girls. “The trooper told me where you were staying,” she said. “I’m just calling to thank you. They were running away, and  you stopped them.” Her daughter suffered a break in her arm just above the elbow. The other girl had scrapes and bruises but nothing more serious.

I hope you never have the experience of hitting someone with your car, but if that ever happens, for heaven’s sake, stop immediately and help that person. That appropriate behavior has been the norm for most of my life, but in recent years, it’s changed. Hit-and-run traffic crashes with injuries or deaths have been increasing every year  across  the entire country at an alarming rate. In my state of North Carolina, there are nearly five hit-and-run incidents every day in which someone is injured or killed and the driver flees the scene.

What is happening to us? What is causing this change in our morality? Our sense of personal responsibility? On one hand, we are heartened by reports of bystanders rushing to the aid of someone in distress in a fire, flood or traffic accident, but we see perpetrators running away when they should be giving aid.

Part of the problem may be that the penalties for fleeing the scene are too mild. Drivers believe they have nothing to lose by getting out of there. One spokesman for the AAA Auto club calls this trend of fleeing the scene a “painful safety epidemic.”

It’s more than that. This is about personal responsibility and morality. This is one change that needs to be changed back to the way it was.

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