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Ordinary heroes abound, expansive study of U.S. rescues shows

3/10/2008

David Hymen
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
A study by law professor David Hyman found that "regular, everyday people routinely do just amazing things," jumping in to help others in need.

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — America’s heroes aren’t just in combat fatigues, fire trucks or Hollywood scripts, according to a study by a University of Illinois professor.

“The country is full of ordinary heroes,” law professor David Hyman says. “This study shows that regular, everyday people routinely do just amazing things.”

Hyman spent more than four years combing through records to gather what he calls the first data-based study on when average Americans jump in to help others in need – and when they don’t.

He says his interest was piqued by high-profile cases that grab headlines when people stand by while others suffer or even die, as well as ongoing legal debate over whether U.S. law should require citizens to help each other when fires, heart attacks or other calamities strike.

The findings, published in the Texas Law Review, debunk widely held perceptions that Americans are more apt to turn a blind eye than lend a hand when they see someone drowning, being robbed or choking at the next table in a restaurant. 

Rescues outnumber non-rescues by 740-to-1 annually in the U.S., according to the study, which culled reports of non-rescues from the media and other sources and weighed them against data from the Carnegie Hero Fund, American Red Cross and about 20 other organizations that dole out awards for rescues or heroism.

The nation averages 1.7 non-rescues a year, the study found, compared with 263 rescues during which people risked their own safety and 1,003 non-risky rescues, such as performing CPR or rendering first aid.

“This ought to make Americans incredibly optimistic about the behavior of their fellow citizens,” Hyman said.

“People are amazingly willing, often at tremendous risk to themselves, to jump in when others are in need of rescue.”

If anything, Americans appear too willing to be Good Samaritans, Hyman said. About 100 people die every year trying to save someone else – six times the number of deaths from non-rescues over the last 10 years combined.

“We ought to think seriously about harm reduction to prevent bad outcomes,” he said. “We need better training in the risks of rescue and how to do it properly. Required swimming lessons in high school could include instructions not to go into the water to save someone unless you’re prepared for two dead people instead of one.”

Hyman says his study helps address a long-standing legal debate over whether American law should include a duty to rescue, which is common in some European nations but now on the books in only three U.S. states.

Supporters argue that any just system of law should require citizens to watch out for each other, while opponents contend duty-to-rescue laws infringe on personal liberty and would chase people away from beaches and other places where the need for rescue might arise.

“This study shows you don’t need laws to get people to rescue one another. They seem to do it themselves,” Hyman said. “I’m not by nature a glass-is-half-full, things-are-wonderful kind of guy. But this study makes it quite clear that Americans are much better than the law expects them to be.”

Hyman expected the study to show that rescues outnumber non-rescues, but says even he was surprised by the magnitude of the disparity.

“There’s literature about evolutionary psychology and altruism that suggests people are hard-wired to rescue,” he said. “It’s an instinctive response. People see someone else in peril and they will jump in, almost regardless of risk.”

Editor’s note: To contact David Hyman, call 217-333-0061; e-mail: dhyman@illinois.edu.