How Do I Handle a Possibly Disabled Bicyclist After an Accident?

The other day in my van, when exiting a parking lot and joining traffic, I struck a cyclist whom I didn’t see because he was coming at me against traffic from behind a relatively blind corner. (Everybody is fine.) My issue is that the fellow, who was alone, seemed to have a disability of some kind, but which of course I was unfit to identify–perhaps it was only some deafness or a speech impediment, but perhaps he had a major developmental disability or past head trauma. Whatever it is, it seemed relevant to the accident in a couple of ways. First, it was a little difficult to communicate with him and understand him (ordinarily I would call that MY problem, but when collecting information and accounts of an incident, accuracy is critical). Second, I don’t know if his condition(s) was a factor in the accident itself, which seems like it could affect legal and insurance liability. And finally, I was unsure that he was even able to be a competent legal advocate for himself in that moment–for example, he wanted to leave the scene and forget about the incident, but was persuaded to stay.

With everything that needs to be coped with on the spot during such a stressful and confusing moment, how should one navigate these issues? Should I have inquired about his disability status either on the spot or later? Should I have asked whether he had a guardian or the ability to make legal decisions on his own? If he insisted on leaving the scene and I had sensed that he was unfit to make the decision or answer the question, should I have essentially DETAINED him until emergency help arrived? These scenarios are horrifying to imagine, potentially intrusive and insulting, and potentially VERY inflammatory if I ended up being mistaken. But I want to be a decent person and make sure I’m looking out for everybody involved, including protecting someone who may be vulnerable.

– Panic at the Citgo

Dear Panic,

First things first: you did the right thing. You did not physically restrain him, someone talked him into staying, and you did not ask intrusive questions regarding his competence.

In general, it’s probably best to assume that anyone who has just been in a terrifying accident (and regardless of fault, being hit by a van when you are on a bicycle is terrifying) that may or may not have included head trauma is not really competent to make the decision to leave the scene.

Beyond that, I am glad you didn’t ask him any questions about competence.

Those of us with obvious disabilities (whether it is an accent related to cerebral palsy or a hearing impairment, mobility equipment, or obvious limb differences, etc) so often have to deal with other people’s preconceived notions of what our brains must be like.

At best, people will do something like what they often do to be when they see my forearm crutches: Speak. Very. Slowly. And. Loudly. Using a ‘Special Voice’ generally reserved for children, and when I answer quickly and fluently they take a huge sigh of relief. At worst, people will do something like what a woman did to my friend Johanna a few years ago while she was trying to go holiday shopping alone: the manager of the store took one look at her and started SCREAMING about people who abandoned their charges and who left this poor girl alone and then she called the cops, so busy screaming and flailing at my friend’s clearly disabled aspect (Johanna has cerebral palsy) that she did not even notice the communication device or that my friend was trying to respond to her.

By the way, unlike me, Johanna is a Stanford graduate.

I understand that you were looking out for the man and that you had real concerns, but you have no idea what was going on with him. Maybe he was high. Maybe he was deaf. Maybe he had CP. Maybe he WAS cognitively disabled. Either way, all of those questions about being competent to represent himself legally can be worked out later if and when there are legal procedures — by himself if he does make his own life decisions in legal matters or by whomever is assigned this duty.

Your job is to do exactly what you did: look out for other people’s welfare, and try to talk them into staying until help arrives. regardless of his intellectual state, age, or possible brain damage. These are not things you needed to know; these are things that might have come out later if it were necessary for anyone to know. If he had left anyway, providing a detailed description of him to the police/ambulance when they arrived would have sufficed.

So: it’s good not to make all of these demands of information from him not just because it might be rude, but mainly because it’s not your business and it’s not actually particularly relevant to the situation for you to know this information.

This letter originally ran in on December 15, 2016.

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