Like many I was horrified to watch the video of a two year old girl, Wang Yue, who wandered into traffic on a busy street in China and was run over twice by vans and then ignored by dozens of passers-by while she lay bleeding in the street.
The video which has been aired on television around the world and posted on YouTube are gut wrenching. After walking into traffic a van strikes the toddler, slows down and then begins driving again. Over the next seven minutes, while the childlays in the middle of the street in a pool of blood, almost 20 people walk or bicycle by her before another van drives over her. She is finally rescued by a Good Samaritan who picks her up and takes her out of traffic.
On Friday the Guangzhou Military District Hospital announced the little girl had died of severe brain and organ injuries.
Chinese Culture to Blame?
Apparently the video has gone viral in China. I am told it has raised serious questions about cultural issues and the lack of Good Samaritan laws in that country.
But the commentary isn’t limited to China. I have seen comments posted on other websites around the world that cast blame and some that border on blatant racism.
Are New Yorkers Different?
Anyone who claims that the indifference shown by the Chinese citizens is a product of Chinese culture needs to remember the case of Kitty Genovese. On March 13, 1964 Kitty drove to her home. As she walked to the door of her apartment building, she was attacked by Winston Moseley who stabbed her twice in the back. Her screams were heard by several neighbors. Moseley ran away and Kitty tried to get to her apartment. Despite the fact that she was calling for help and seriously injured, in full sight of her neighbors, no one helped her and no one called police. Moseley returned and found Kitty unconscious. He attacked her again stabbing her several more times. He sexually assaulted her and left her to die.
Media reported that 38 neighbors had witnessed or heard her attack and done nothing.
The case caused a furor around the world and New Yorkers were criticized for being cold hearted and indifferent.
So is this type of response (or lack of response) cultural? Are citizens in China or New York City more callus or indifferent that citizens from other parts of the world?
Social scientists have referred to this response as “Bystander Apathy” or the Genovese Effect.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, psychologists have found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any single person will offer to help. Scientists speculate that as the number of bystanders increases, the more likely it is individuals assume that “someone else” will stop and help.
Psychologists have found the effect also works in reverse. The irony is that, if you are seriously injured, the fewer people who witness your injury the more likely it is that someone will help you.
Good Samaritan Laws
Some provinces and states have enacted legislation that protects volunteers (or Good Samaritans) from liability if they are helping someone and the victim is injured as a result of the Good Samaritan’s actions.
At common law there is no legal obligation for a person to go to the aid of a victim who is in distress. If Wang Yue was lying in the middle of Spring Garden Road here in Halifax there is no legal obligation for anyone to help her.
We all like to think of ourselves as companionate caring human beings. The sad fact is that sometimes just because we know what’s right does not mean we will do what’s right.
The province of Quebec is unique in Canada (and I think in North America) in that their Civil Code imposes a legal duty on citizens to render aid to a person in distress if doing so can be accomplished without risk to the Good Samaritan. (I am not aware of any case law in Quebec where this legislation has been considered.)
The terrible tragedy of Wang Yue’s death forces us to consider what we value as a society. It has been said that you cannot legislate good behavior. But sometimes you have to train people to learn new habits.
Perhaps Nova Scotia and the other common law provinces in Canada need to follow Quebec’s lead and introduce legislation requiring us to be helpful to our brothers and sisters when they are in distress.