The ethics of riding past a crash: does being a bystander make you morally responsible?

by Wade Wallace


Yesterday we posted a crash video that a mate of mine caught on camera at Amy’s Gran Fondo on Sunday. From all accounts, the crash was caused by an untimely puncture in the middle of the field and about a dozen people went down as a result. One person looked to be seriously injured at the time, but it’s been reported that he is going to be OK. It’s remarkable that this was the only serious crash in an event attended by 6,000 people.

My mate ended up pulling the video down after a few hours. He had been heavily criticised on social media for riding around the crash rather than stopping to see if everyone was OK.

My group passed the aftermath of the crash a couple minutes later and I admit I didn’t stop either. Did I even consider stopping? I wish I could say that I did, but I didn’t.

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This is a moral dilemma that I’ve had dozens of times in 20 years of racing. I’ve been surrounded by pile-ups on the road, many of them serious enough to put people in hospital for weeks. I recall one race where I was in a breakaway with one other. We were on the final descent with less than 10km remaining. One of us was certain to win. Behind me I heard a crack and a scream.

My breakaway companion had gone off the road during a tricky bend, straight into a rock wall. He ended up in hospital with very serious injuries. Did I stop? No. Should I have? To this day, I’m not sure that it was my responsibility to, but I still think about it.

This is something I have contemplated many, many times. I’ve come to accept the fact that in mass participation events or races, there will always be crashes. It’s easy to cry that some “hubbard” was the cause of it, but often that’s not the case. Remember, the pros racing the Tour de France crash every day.

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Is it my responsibility to check in on every crash I see while riding in an event? Morally, I feel like I should. If I were to see something horrific right in front of my eyes and I was the first on the scene, there’s no doubt I’d stop. What kind of person would I be otherwise? Imagine if you were the person that crashed and nobody decided to stop.

The view of many people, though, is that the inevitability of someone else’s crash during a race shouldn’t ruin the day of thousands of others. You’ve trained for this, you’ve paid hundreds of dollars, and you don’t want all your efforts thwarted by someone else’s mistake. Ultimately, crashes are a statistical certainty.

To me, out of sight is out of mind, and while the sound of carbon cracking and scraping behind me sends shivers up my spine, I’m probably not going to stop if I haven’t seen anything. Similarly, I’m unlikely to stop if I see an incident ahead of me that, on first look, doesn’t seem too serious. I’ve seen hundreds of crashes and have become desensitised to the pain they cause — I’ve normalised them as a part of racing.

To be clear, during group rides where there aren’t managed traffic conditions and no medical staff on alert, I almost always stop during a crash to see if the riders are okay, even if I don’t know him or her. This is a very different scenario than participating in an event. And while this may not be everyone’s moral stance, this is my own.

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Everyone who enters a race or an adrenaline-fuelled sportif knows the risks and is participating with that knowledge. The event organiser should have professional medical help on stand-by. There are always serious scenarios that could happen where you need to take immediate responsibility and respond to a horrific crash, but that’s up to you to decide.

It’s up to each individual’s moral compass whether or not stopping at a crash in a race or sportif is the right thing to do. Only you will be able to determine in a split second whether someone needs your help or not. As you see more crashes and experience a few yourself, your moral judgment will probably change as well, unfortunately.

Road racing is a tough sport where the smallest mishaps often end up in a hospital. There’s no perfectly clear line on how to respond to accidents during races, but use your judgement on the situation and be certain that the injured rider(s) will be attended to before you ride on by.

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