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Witnesses are Golden
Especially if they're reliable

By: Cash anthony

Let's say that you observe an accident occur, or you are one of the first on scene after the fact. You wish to help, but someone else is attending to the victim(s) and directing traffic around the scene. A policeman arrives and takes over. What then?

You may be able to gather valuable information as a witness that should be reported or conveyed to the people involved, either now or later. Either way, you can take steps now to make sure it's useful and reliable. Eye-witness accounts of sudden events can be confused, strange sights can be over-emphasized, details can be forgotten by the parties involved. But your particular information may be just what's needed to sort it all out.

For various reasons, a law enforcement officer on the scene may not seem to want your report or will be too busy to take down the details. If this is the case, you should consider coming forward later. That is, if you want to accept the benefits of living in a civilized world and consider yourself a decent human being, then you should also take steps to notice, record and offer information that would help establish what happened, before you leave the scene. You can track down the person to give it to, afterwards.

Even if you are shocked and upset, you can probably remember to get at least some of what will help out later. It seems to be the natural response these days to pull out a cell phone and take a picture, and in many cases, that's a great response.

If nothing else, even without a camera phone, you can call your own number on your cell phone (repeatedly if necessary) and dictate a message to yourself with the information. You can tell what you saw of the event ("The red car ran the light"), what other people are saying, what's the most likely way it happened. You can note what the police are saying, and who they are (for instance, in Houston we have something like 36 different police organizations that could respond).

This kind of 'on the spot reporting' may end up being critical information later, and it can help a terribly injured person end up with enough resources to live out a much better life. Or it can prevent an innocent person from being burdened with the cost of supporting someone for life who actually was the person at fault.

A person who is willing to record his or her immediate perceptions of an accident is absolutely golden, in terms of the search for truth.

So, if you are a witness, I would urge you to get as much of this as you can:

  1. The official accident report number
  2. The names, agency and officer numbers of the investigating police

  3. The names of the drivers involved (and any other pertinent info you can gather about the vehicles: License plate numbers, make, model, year of the cars/bikes/trucks, general description of damage, cell phone photos of cars, drivers, and environment)

  4. Exact record (others talk into your phone) or your best recollection of what the persons involved say

  5. Exact names of roads, address numbers and landmarks where the accident occurred

  6. Time of day when you made your observations - give time and also give a reference (I arrived at 10:12 and I saw the accident, I arrived at 10:12 and it looked to be seconds afterwards, the vehicles were still steaming and no one was moving, etc., I came on the scene well after the police)

  7. A general description of what you saw and what you think, using your common sense, probably happened. Try to keep a calm attitude, and don't let your emotions dictate who was right or wrong.

After the immediate needs of the injured or affected persons are dealt with, a witness who has recorded this info will be able to track down the names and contact information of the parties. If you have enough of those facts and come forward, you may literally save someone's life after the accident.

You don't know how? Well, do you have any idea what happens to people who have to come back from life-threatening injuries, or situations that cause permanent loss of function, without money for treatment? Do you know how many give up if they have no one to help them get what they deserve for long-term care? People really do 'get away with murder,' even though they didn't intend that to be the result of their carelessness. They didn't think, and no one saw -- or admitted they did.

Even if the police do not seem to want your statement, there's no doubt that one or both of the parties involved will see you as a real resource later, no matter "which side" your facts appear to be support. A fast settlement or an end to false hopes is better than dragging an impossible case out.

You will also provide an invaluable service to those who are trying to figure out exactly what happened for safety reasons, and what would help prevent another such incident. That's a lot of incentive to come forward and say what you saw, I believe.

I don't think there's a lot of legitimacy in ducking out and avoiding the small commitment of time that it takes to be a witness, assuming that you are in a position to stop and have decided your own safety won't be threatened if you do. Fewer than 20% of court cases actually go to trial, so the most a witness usually has to do is to make a couple of telephone calls, or to answer some questions at an appointed time and place (not in court).

I think most of us, if we put ourselves in the position of someone who has been hurt in an accident, would be extremely grateful to someone who comes forward.

It may not be 'heroic' -- some people may just expect it, without realizing that it can require courage (and human nature sometimes disappoints) -- but it really is the decent thing to do. If you can't save a life, you can still make the aftermath of an accident much more fair, and perhaps you will have insights that will cause a change of environment or conditions which could save many more lives later on.

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