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Our View: To help or not on interstate?

Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

The circumstances that surround the November death of a motorist on Interstate 88 in western Illinois are perplexing.

Lee Catlin, 65, a retired teacher from Bettendorf, Iowa, apparently was driving eastbound on I-88 the night of Nov. 12 when he ran out of gas, got out of the car and began walking eastward.

Then, something went wrong.

Catlin was found dead the next morning about a quarter mile away from his car about four miles west of Dixon. Authorities later said his blood-alcohol content was higher than the legal limit.

But his presence, while still alive, did not go unnoticed by fellow motorists.

Between 8:24 p.m. and 8:46 p.m. Nov. 12, at least three I-88 motorists reported seeing a man lying on the side of the highway, waving his arms. The motorists used their cellphones to report what they saw to authorities. None of the motorists stopped.

A state trooper and a state highway maintenance worker, dispatched to the scene, unfortunately did not find anyone along the darkened highway. It was not until about 8 a.m. Nov. 13 that Catlin’s body was found.

The tragedy provided plenty of material for Monday morning quarterbacks to debate.

Questions were raised as to why authorities failed to find Catlin after they were given details of his location.

Just as important, why did motorists who saw the man lying along the interstate continue on their way? Why didn’t they pull off the highway, call 911, wait for police to arrive and direct them to the victim?

A sociology professor at Northern Illinois University said that stopping to help someone along an interstate highway is not necessarily a no-brainer.

Professor Kirk Miller said interstate drivers assume more anonymity than when they are on other roads. They “are in their own pods, separate from other people on the road,” he said.

The “group dynamic” of interstate motorists is different than for people who drive along hometown streets, country roads and rural highways. Out on the interstate, hurried drivers are more likely to assume that somebody else will pull over to help, or that authorities already have been contacted.

People may be more fearful of pulling over because of the perception that it’s more dangerous to do so, which has basis in fact. People who pull over expose themselves to being struck by errant interstate traffic or parts, such as tires, that fly off vehicles going at high speed. Nighttime heightens the danger.

Fear of becoming a crime victim prevents many from pulling over. In addition, “I don’t think any female driver is likely to stop in that situation,” Miller said.

Now that the top speed limit is 70 mph in Illinois, interstate motorists have less time to think about what they should do when overtaking someone in trouble.

The tragedy presents a challenge to every driver: What would you do in that situation?

Think about it.

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