Sunday, January 18, 2015
Driver could have avoided gnawing guilt over a car accident
Years ago, a reader and his wife were driving in New York City to a meeting. They were running late and the reader who was driving recalls that he was "tearing down Park Avenue."
He veered into the right-hand lane and cut off a cabbie. Luckily for the reader, the cab driver didn't hit his car, but swerved, striking the side of a light-colored luxury car "parked in front of a fancy building."
The reader slowed down. The cab driver also slowed down. They made eye contact. Then the cabbie turned right onto the nearest cross street and took off.
While the reader didn't hit the parked car, he knew he'd caused the accident. He and his wife considered for a moment leaving a note on the windshield of the car sideswiped by the cab. Ultimately, he writes, "we made like the cabbie and left the scene."
The couple made their meeting in time, but the reader writes that he was "so freaked out" when he got home that he called a lawyer friend to ask whether he'd be hauled off to jail. The lawyer friend told him not to worry.
Nevertheless, the incident still nags at the reader, not because he's afraid of being arrested, but because he believes the owner of the parked car deserved an explanation.
"Were we responsible for paying for the damage to the luxury car since we probably caused the cab driver -- who undoubtedly was driving too fast -- to change lanes and hit him?" he asks.
Whether or not the reader was responsible for the damage is not the first question he should be asking himself. Leaving a note and/or reporting the incident were more important issues to consider. Of course, the cabbie who hit the parked car certainly didn't do the right thing by leaving. He should have at least let the parked car's owner know he's sideswiped him.
The reader who saw the accident, felt guilty and likewise did nothing also fell short of doing the right thing.
Granted, he didn't hit the parked car, nor would his guilty conscience necessarily have translated into being found at fault for the damage. He certainly wasn't obligated to leave a blank check to cover repairs that might have been the cabbie's responsibility. Ultimately, since he was involved in the incident, the right thing to do would have been to let the owner of the parked car know what happened.
Doing so might have made the reader late for his meeting, but would have tempered the gnawing sense of guilt he still feels.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.