The psychology of why drivers fail to stop after an accident

The recent hit-and-run cases made me recall another case. Dr Kapoor (not his real name) was an eminent professor and his driver one day narrated how in the night when they were returning from some function at 2:00 am, they hit a scooterist and they fled the scene, though they saw the scooterist was breathing. […]


The recent hit-and-run cases made me recall another case. Dr Kapoor (not his real name) was an eminent professor and his driver one day narrated how in the night when they were returning from some function at 2:00 am, they hit a scooterist and they fled the scene, though they saw the scooterist was breathing. The professor asked the driver to take the car to a known garage to remove the dents and blood stains. The scooterist died on the road. The surprising part was the lack of remorse, or guilt on part of both the driver and the professor. What is it that makes people so indifferent, almost bordering on evil! What is it about accidents that make ordinary, intelligent, and otherwise seemingly normal, good, and caring people take callous decisions? Psychologists say the drivers likely experience a flood of emotions including fear, shame and guilt, which overwhelm their sense of self-control. This is made worse by alcohol, as rational decision making is difficult in an intoxicated state. Fear and escape motivations kick in and, without good executive functioning, making flight more probable. Then many flee for Self-preservation. Drivers might “self-preserve” in several ways. Some have criminality to hide, others fear the consequences of capture, some simply panic and enter a “flight mode”, some are fearful for their own physical safety and others are fearful that they are being “set up” as part of a scam. Another major reason is that they feel it is too trivial to report and it is an accident, not something they have done deliberately. People also are strongly motivated to avoid the consequences. There are likely several personality types who would flee. They can be classified as: The oblivious: Drivers who are unsure that an accident has even occurred. The uncertain departers: Drivers who are unsure whether the accident should be reported at all – usually due to their judgement that the accident is too trivial. The panickers: The initial response of this group is to ‘panic’ at the scene (regardless of blame or extent of damage/ injury). This is followed by an overwhelming desire to leave the scene or enter a “flight” mode. The rational escapists: Drivers who make a rational decision to leave the scene (by considering the consequences of staying at the scene as against the benefits of leaving). This group may make a rational decision to leave to either (1) hide criminality; (2) avoid being victims of “scams” or (3) to protect their safety if the accident has occurred in a dangerous location. The intimidated: Drivers who face aggression from other drivers or pedestrians and as a consequence leave the scene. The impaired or “non compos mentis”: Drivers who are drunk or drugged at the time of the accident. This may be the cause of the accident and impairs judgement over whether to stay at the scene or not. Many drivers linked the notion of “blame” for the accident to whether they considered their actions to be a crime. The risk-taker, who is selfconfident and energetic, and feels in control of fate. They drink more and are more likely to get into an accident and would rather take the risk of running than face the consequences of staying. Another type has little impulse control. Fear, adrenaline and the “fight or flight” instinct kicks in and they act before they think. They might be most likely to return once they start thinking clearly. Another type has “guilty knowledge,” They are doing something wrong, such as drinking or driving without a valid driver’s license, or are with someone they aren’t supposed to be. They also might be a police officer or a person in a leadership position. Another type may believe the crash is not their fault, so they leave rather than be—to their thinking—unfairly punished. And lastly, some may have just had a bad upbringing and lack morals and empathy for their victims. These are the most disturbing kind. Such avoidance actions are usually moderated by a person’s upbringing and culture. Whether someone flees comes down to “consequences versus values,” People generally own up to their mistakes if they have been positively recognized for good behaviour and telling the truth; conversely, those always severely punished for their behaviour would be less likely to take responsibility. However, it is the banality that is disturbing. Everyday things we do can add up to dysfunction on the societal level without us really noticing. Take an instance of hitting an animal while driving, very few would stop or even bother about it. These same motives and tendencies that lead to banal inconvenience could, in a different context, lead to something horrible because of people getting away with it. Humans have this peculiar tendency not to care about things that do not serve their self-interest, we wilfully ignore anything that isn’t relevant to our interests or our ego, and society suffers for it because we have lost the bigger picture. Banal is when something is seen as trivial, no big deal, commonplace, It’s so obvious it shouldn’t have to be explained. Couple that with what we see as evil and we have all kinds of normalization of monstrous deeds. Evil does not have to be Satan like, it is commonplace, immoral acts and principles becoming normalized over time and ordinary people going about their lives become complicit actors in systems that perpetuate evil. The normalization of small acts of cruelty and it all begins with cruelty to animals being accepted as okay is where it all starts and then transfers to children, the poor, the marginalized, women, disabled and old people. This is all based on the gruesome belief that some lives are expendable and results in incompetence, negligence and trivializing life. We live and think not in isolation, but in an interconnected web of social and cultural relations—a framework of shared languages, behaviour, and conventions that we are conditioned by every single day. This web of social and cultural relations is so all-encompassing in shaping our thought and behaviour we are barely conscious of it. It only becomes noticeable when something or someone doesn’t conform to it. These hit-and-run cases have made us realise that something is drastically wrong and this is an opportunity for us to introspect and challenge things that are not right. Ethics, values, morals, kindness, and compassion are important aspects of a civil society and somehow, these are things we have made redundant in our lives and culture needs to become centre stage along with the consequences for violations. 

Dr Chavi Bhargava Sharma is the founder and CEO of Indic Center for Psychological Wellness and Holistic Health and Conversationalists-Talking Cures.