A relative of a man killed in a hit-and-run accident holds a board offering a reward to witnesses, at the accident site in Beijing Wednesday Oct. 18, 2006. (AP Photo/EyePress)

The very first editorial I wrote for National Underwriter involved a pretty bad car crash that occurred just one block from my home. I ran to the scene to assist and ended up helping a woman who was going into shock due to a broken arm. I didn’t think about going to help. I just did. And I was hardly alone; many of my neighbors did likewise. That’s the kind of neighborhood I live in. It is a big reason why my wife and I chose to raise our kids here. It is the kind of old-school place where I grew up: where you knew your neighbors by name, where the kids can play safely and where you don’t feel like you are treading water amid a sea of strangers.

Alas, much has changed in the years since I was just another latchkey kid growing up where I could bike miles from home and still be considered on safe ground. Awareness over child abduction did much to shatter old notions of safety, especially in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where I live. Here is where Megan Kankas, a little girl abducted from the Freehold Mall, became the namesake of the national child predator law “Megan’s Law.” What has been a national issue started here as local news. Is it any wonder kids aren’t allowed to go to the park by themselves any more? Not really. But it doesn’t make it any less sad. 

But the other big thing – the really important thing according to my wife, who is a land use planner – is traffic. There are simply many more cars on the road these days than there were 20 or 30 years ago, and with modern development, roads are not only wider, but they are designed to facilitate fast traffic, especially in high-density suburban areas. Even if nobody in the world worried about child predators, I still wouldn’t let my kids bike to the town park a block away without me because the street we live on is so packed with speeding traffic that I’d much rather go along with them to ensure that they are safe. That we’ve already seen one kid get clpped on his bike only strengthens my resolve on this issue.

A sad fact about the traffic is how many pets get hit by moving vehicles, and whenever I see one, I am tempted to move it to the side of the road and ask nearby houses if they know the animal that got hit. My wife warned me off of this. When I asked why, it is because, she said, that folks might take my interest in identifying the animal as an admission of guilt for having hit it. Even though I hit no animals, that wouldn’t stop folks from thinking I did, and maybe even trying to hold me accountable for it. So with a long, heavy sigh, I agreed with my wife (who is always right, by the way, no matter how many times I foolishly try to prove otherwise). It makes me feel bad, though, especially when pet owners put up signs of their missing animals. The lost dog or cat is 99.999% sure to be dead on the side of the road somewhere, its grand adventure outside of the yard cut tragically short.

With all of this in mind, I was dumbstruck when I read on the BBC this morning a story from China in which a toddler got hit by a van in the southern city of Quongdong, and after the vehicle paused for a moment after hitting the girl, it drove off, running over her legs in the process. Nearby video cameras caught the whole incident, also showing that more than a dozen people passed by after the accident, none of whom stopped to help the injured little girl. Another vehicle hit the girl a second time, and even then nobody did anything about it. Finally, a garbage collector saw the girl and went looking for her mother; emergency services brought the girl in for care, but she was pronounced brain dead.

The drivers have since been arrested, and there is a public outcry in China over this act of scandalizing callousness. But the disregard people showed for this hurt little girl is not just people being despicable. I asked my sister-in-law about this; she lived in China for nearly two years teaching English to business students. And she told me that this sort of thing is actually a big problem in China, where she had witnessed something similar. She told me that in passenger automobile accidents, a driver is better off killing somebody than having them survive, because the driver will be held responsible for the victim’s healthcare. While that makes sense on the face of it, in reality, it leads to hit-and-run accidents and people literally leaving children to die in the street. 

It gets worse. My father-in-law, who served in Okinawa during the Vietnam war, noted that a similar standard was held in Japan, and that American servicemen were advised, in a pedestrian accident, to back over the victim and make sure to kill them rather than risk supporting the victim and his or her family forevermore. Just think about that for a moment: this was advice given to U.S. soldiers operating in the land of an ally some 40 years ago. It would seem little has changed, at least not in China, anyway.

How sad it is that such a system can persist. Here in the U.S., so-called “Good Samaritan” laws exist in on form or another across the country, providing at least some basic legal defense for those who aid their fellow man or woman in a time of emergency and somehow are later sued for it. The laws are not perfect, and they vary considerably from state to state, but they are there, which provides for a far stronger social fabric than one that allows for – or even encourages – people to ignore a critically injured child for fear of their own well-being. China may get some things right. But boy, they sure get some things wrong, too. And this is very much one of them. 

So do we, for that matter. Our own legal liability is often considered as a secord form of taxation on business, and as somebody who has researched more than a few outrageous libiality cases, I must agree. One need look no farther than any of the infamous judicial hellhole territories in this country to see a flight of medical specialists such as OB/GYNs, who either fear a practice-breaking lawsuit, or who no longer can afford their equaly back-breaking liability premiums. We have our liability system to thank for that.

Legal costs have been cited to me more than once by healthcare professionals whose primary criticism of PPACA is that it does not address the rising cost of healthcare, just one portion of which are high legal costs. And indeed, PPACA really does nothing to address how much healthcare costs, let alone attempt any kind of medical care-related tort reform. But as implementation of PPACA slowly moves along between now and 2012, maybe this would be a good time to take it under consideration. After all, while even the most litigious part of the United States still is a far cry from the kind of travesty that just occurred in China, it is also not impossible to imagine.

Surely as we try to make the best healthcare system for ourselves and for our children and for our children’s children, let us make sure that getting batter in the United States is first about getting the care you need, and then about making sure it can be properly paid for, and only then who should take the blame, if any. Because if we allow our system to invert its priorities – and cost of healthcare would be a very effective catalyst for such a thing – then we are giving rise to a system where it doesn’t matter who has access to emergency healthcare when they need it most. Why? Because as they lay dying on the curb, their fellow citizen is likely to hurry along, shielding their eyes, telling themselves, “Nothing to see here. Move along.”