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Should I stop?

Suddenly, traffic slows to a crawl just when you're late for an appointment. And then you see why -- up ahead there's a mangled mess of metal and plastic that used to be two automobiles. People are obviously hurt, and as you look around, you are horrified to note that there are none of the comforting flashing red lights of emergency vehicles yet on the scene... Should you stop?

For most people, thankfully, the answer to that is, "I HAVE to! I have to try to help!" but there are important considerations that must go through your mind when you decide to try to help out with an accident on the roadway.

Some things to consider:

- Can you see emergency response vehicles on the road, headed to the accident? If so, you should leave the situation to the professionals.

- Has anyone called 911? If not, do so immediately and explain who you are, where you are, what is going on, and what help you think is needed (eg., police, ambulance, fire, utilities). Stay on the line until the 911 dispatcher tells you it's OK to hang up.

- Are you trained to help?

  • If you have never taken a basic first aid course, then I strongly suggest signing up for a class. This can be done quickly and easily through the American Red Cross, or, if you're especially motivated, you might sign up for an evening EMT (emergency medical technician) class through a local college -- they're a lot of fun, and it was an EMT class that got me first interested in a career in Emergency Medicine!

- Is it safe to stop, based on the location of the accident and position of the vehicles?

  • If possible, you should pull your vehicle safely off the road and out of traffic
  • You should consider positioning your vehicle - with its flashers blinking - a safe distance from the accident so that it acts as a warning to other vehicles and gives you some protection as you render care. If you choose to do this, get all occupants in your vehicle out and to a safe location away from traffic.
  • Do you have small children in your vehicle? If so, you can't render care at a scene and keep an appropriate eye on your kids -- best to let others help.
  • Survey the scene... and here's the MOST important part -- look for any hazards that might not be immediately obvious BEFORE you proceed. Obviously, moving traffic is a huge risk, but also, is there fuel on the road? Sharp glass and metal? How about downed power lines? If there are downed power lines in proximity to the vehicle, do NOT approach the vehicle. Warn the occupants to stay inside the vehicle until professional help arrives. They are pretty well protected inside the vehicle by the insulating properties of the tires, as long as they don't try to get out and touch any part of the exterior of the vehicle.

- Do you have equipment/supplies with which to render aid? Everyone should have a first aid kit in their vehicle. The contents of such a kit is a topic for a future blog!

- Have other people stopped to help? If so, seek out whomever seems to be running things -- probably the person who has been quickly identified as the one with the most training or experience.

  • Check in with that person and let him/her know that you're willing to help and what you are trained to do.

- If you decide or are asked to direct traffic, be sure you are highly visible (have a flashlight in your car for use at night) and stay out of the actual path of vehicles. Position yourself a safe distance before the accident to give those passing through time to slow down before they reach the scene.

  • If you plan to place road flares, you should know how to light them, how to keep them from rolling away, how to extinguish them if necessary, and how to assess whether they are safe to use (no risk of igniting fuel, grass, etc.). Better yet, have in your vehicle high visibility emergency reflectors that can be used more safely.

A lot to think about, but we owe it to ourselves to consider these issues BEFORE we come across that next major accident. Again, once we have prepared for the emergency, it ceases to be an emergency.

Stay alert and stay safe.
- Dr. Bob

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About the Author

The Stanford Emergency Room is the center of emergency care at Stanford University.