Ask Miriam | Bumper Cars Create Quandary


Dear Miriam,

While leaving my house on foot, I saw a driver hit the bumper of another car while parallel parking. I didn’t notice any damage and I walked away, but it got me wondering what my responsibility is as an observer, even to a minor traffic situation like this one. Should I have stayed around longer? Made sure the driver inspected the other car? Or did I spare the driver embarrassment by not getting involved?


Casual observer


Dear Observer,

I am a strong believer that the part of a vehicle called the “bumper” is aptly named and, especially on narrow city streets, they’re going to get bumped. You did the right thing by making sure both cars were fine and then not unnecessarily inserting yourself into someone else’s situation.

A question like this is all a matter of degrees, though. If either car had been damaged and the driver was distraught, how would you have offered comfort? If the parked car had been damaged and the driver walked away without leaving a note for the owner, how would you have responded? If, God forbid, we were talking about a person who was lightly tapped by a vehicle rather than another car, what would your response have been then?

There are all kinds of ways in which passersby can be helpful in any of these cases, and just as many ways that they can be intrusive, disrespectful, nosy or irrelevant. A good rule to follow is that is a person needs help, you, regardless of your relationship to the situation, should see if you can provide that help. Of course, there are lots of times when this isn’t practical or realistic (thinking specifically of how many homeless people could ask a walking commuter for money on any given day), but it’s a useful guideline.

Did this driver need your help? Nope. Then you moved on appropriately. You could argue that, if the parked car had been damaged, that the other car owner needed help and wasn’t there to speak up. In that case, saying to the driver, “Do you need a piece of paper to write down your information to leave on the windshield?” would be an appropriate thing for you to say. If the driver had no intention of leaving a note, you don’t know how s/he will respond, and you’re taking a small risk by getting involved, but it would still be the right thing to do.

In the case of this particular incident, I would liken it to tripping and falling off the curb: You’re embarrassed but not hurt, and the real injury would come to your ego from knowing someone had seen your misstep. Better to move on and let the harmless incident go unacknowledged. The reminder that it brings up, though, that life is full of complicated and nuanced experiences, will help prepare you for the next unexpected encounter that comes your way.

Be well,




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