It was a nasty crash: five vehicles, one on its roof, another ripped in half. One fatality. My job was traffic control. For three and a half hours, I stood by the orange cones, waving oncoming cars forward to the detour. It was one of the busier intersections in town. Beckon forward, point, beckon forward, point.
I estimated that, at a conservative estimate of 10 cars per minute, more than 2,000 vehicles went by. Daylight yielded to dusk, then evening while the scene was investigated. Rush hour came and went. Selfishly, I was glad for my warm fire department bunker gear in the single-digit temperatures, and for the hot chocolate delivered by a colleague after a couple of hours.
As I motioned people forward to the turn, I had a lot of time to think. With each brief moment of eye contact with the people in their warm cars, I pondered: where are they headed? Where are they coming from? What are they thinking as they see this debris-filled intersection with five crashed cars?
I don’t know exactly what the people who passed me the other day were thinking, but their faces showed the full range of response and reaction: astonishment, concern, fear, compassion. Most slowed briefly as they took in the situation. As in many situations of uncertainty, they needed to know what to do (that was my job). I could see them trying to piece together the mess that was behind me. Some were slower than others to get the gist.
When they saw how bad it was, some defaulted to that modern scourge: cell phone documentation. Seeing people trying to take photos or videos while driving can be very irritating to someone like me. They inevitably interfere with the flow of traffic, and don’t pay attention to me, which is a safety issue.
In general, pesky bystanders who gawk or press in to lap the edges of tragedy have a name: “looky-lou’s.” I get it. I get the disdain many emergency service colleagues feel for them. I understand their sometimes thinly-veiled irritation at this behavior.
And then I remember the wise words of my old friend, lawyer, and EMS publisher, Jim Page. He was a 16-year member of Los Angeles Fire Department until 1973 (and later at Carlsbad Fire Department, CA, in the mid-80s). He was the first statewide director of EMS in North Carolina. In 1979 he united with the talented writer/editor Keith Griffiths and they started the trade journal known as JEMS: The Journal of Emergency Medical Services. He had his fingers on the pulse of this business.
Jim always said that we should be grateful for our “looky-lou’s.” He would say it’s a sign of a healthy society when people are curious to know what happened. Imagine if no one cared enough to look over! What would that say about our world?
Think about it. When your loved ones tell you of scenes such as the one the other day, what thoughts run through their minds? I know some people offer up a prayer for those involved. Maybe they renew their vow not to text or multi-task while driving. Many are grateful to have been spared, at least for another day. And yes, a few are jerks about the disruption and take it out on the convenient source: the person telling them what they need to do. Me.
The other day, of all those thousands of people, just a handful were head-shaker bad. One (holding his cell in video mode) snarled, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” snidely when I told him to please keep moving, but we knew that guy and he’s always like that. A few paused to get directions around the detour, no problem. Oh, and there was the elderly Ukrainian couple who spoke no English driving like a moth to the flame toward the crashsite until we stopped them...but that’s another story.
Eventually, my parade of vehicles became a hypnotic, continuous stream. It got difficult to maintain that personal touch, especially once their headlights came on. I found myself pondering the value of good customer service. I was safeguarding the scene, true, but I was also that person representing the emergency services to the passers-by. I wasn’t needed for extrication, or medical care, or even debris-sweeping. I was needed at the intersection. It’s not the most glamorous job, and it’s not my favorite. It’s no one’s favorite. But if you’re “stuck” doing traffic, it helps to choose to appreciate the looky-lou set. They aren’t bad people. Most of them are really good people just trying to understand a situation we see often but which is horrifying to them. It helps to bear in mind that this driver here and now is seeing the situation for the first time.
The more we, the people in the high-visibility gear outside on cold winter nights directing traffic, work positively with the public, the better our reputation. For many good reasons, it matters to be consistent and agreeable each of those 2,000 customer service moments. There’s no percentage in getting abrasive or prickly with our “looky-lou” drivers, especially those who are clearly just trying to get their heads around what they are seeing. If people ever get so hardened to tragedy that they aren’t curious about it, I’ll remember Jim Page’s advice and start to really worry.