SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, perhaps even reading this, is the driver who hit and killed Tiara Nichelle Jackson. It was June 8 last year, closing in on 2 in the morning, on a flat and unremarkable stretch of the Beltway in Prince George's County, Md. Tiara was a 22-year-old mom, petite, pretty, outgoing. She had an eye-popping personality. You would like her, that's what everyone says.
She lost control of her car on the Outer Loop as it passed the Ritchie Marlboro Road exit. She braked hard, but her blue Chrysler Sebring convertible slid against the barrier on the far side of the highway. It then spun across all four lanes, into the grassy median, plowed into the steel barrier separating the Inner and Outer Loops, and finally came to a stop.
Tiara got out and went back to the roadway. Perhaps she was trying to flag down help. Instead, she was almost immediately struck by an oncoming vehicle.
The driver did not stop. There were no skid marks before the point of impact and none after.
The next driver who hit her did not stop either; nor did the next. This went on for perhaps 20 minutes.
The Maryland State Police report says the initial vehicle's impact was so great, and the lighting so poor, that after the first driver or so it is unlikely "other motorists knew they were striking a human's remains."
The story of that night is simple. It asks only a couple of questions.
But first, consider: The Beltway is the aorta of regional traffic. It plays a universal role in the life of Washington, D.C. It measures our circumference (64 miles), it defines the capital region for the rest of the nation, and if there is a most-common experience to life here, it's taking the Beltway. From Potomac to Clinton, from Alexandria to Silver Spring, it is the one road upon which almost every resident eventually must travel, from the president to the proletariat.
So, were you to be traveling this roadway of our lives and suffer the same misfortune as Tiara Jackson — an accident, a flat tire, a leaking radiator — what stranger would stop to help? Would anyone? Should anyone? How quickly would you be dismissed as outside the bonds of human compassion and left upon an island of fatal indifference?
LET'S AGREE THAT The Wreck is an archetype of American life. More than 5.6 million traffic accidents were reported to police in 2012. There were 33,561 fatalities, or about 92 deaths per day.
About 4,600 pedestrians — Tiara Jackson would be listed as one — have been killed each year since 2002. Hit-and-run deaths, the kind we're talking about here, make up about 4 percent of all traffic fatalities from 1982 to 2011, with 1,394 in 2011. That's almost four per day.
The Capital Beltway had 101 traffic fatalities between 2007 and 2011, with 17 being "non-occupants," such as pedestrians.
So, somewhere in America, there are a couple of Tiara Jacksons every day, year in and year out. People get behind the wheel, they hit and kill somebody, and take off before they can get caught.
You have to wonder what that feels like.
The last night of Tiara's life, Levi Martin, her stepdad, was at home. Kimberly Jackson Martin, her mom, was out helping a friend prepare for a baby shower. Tiara and her son, Princeton, 2, were in their room, the door closed, Levi thinking she was getting in a nap before her overnight shift.
But, it turns out, Tiara was not going to work. She had quit her security dispatch job but hadn't worked up the nerve to tell her parents. Levi says she stayed in her room, with lights out, all evening.
Kimberly came home just before midnight. Thinking that Tiara had to be at work soon, she woke her up with a text message to avoid knocking on the door and risk waking the toddler.
By 12:12 a.m., Tiara was texting her mom while getting dressed, making small talk, borrowing a few dollars for gas.
Then Tiara went downstairs, walked out the front door, and got into the Sebring. She pulled out and left.
WHAT DO WE owe one another? What are the bonds among us all? More to the point: It's late at night. You're driving on the Beltway, and you hit another human being. You killed her. Would you stop?
You should, of course. It's the law. Every state says this. Maryland law compels drivers in collisions to remain at the scene. In an accident resulting in bodily injury or death, there is a "duty to give information and render aid," according to the official police report on Tiara's death. You're even protected, by "good Samaritan" laws, from ungrateful victims who try to sue you for helping them in ways they later don't appreciate.
And in this case, Tiara was at fault.
For whatever reason — dazed, concussed, frightened — she walked onto the fast lane of the Beltway. The police report says her death was "a result of pedestrian error.... A pedestrian may not walk along a -controlled-access highway."
Had the driver stopped, he or she would have borne no legal responsibility (unless the driver were drunk, speeding, or both). But fleeing? Fleeing is not only a crime, it violates what it means to be human.
Let's check in with Frans de Waal.
(AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser)
One of the world's premier researchers into primate behavior, he has written many books, most recently The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. He is unequivocal: The urge to help others in crisis is seen in primates, never mind humans. To ignore another human being in crisis, he points out, is not just inhuman, it goes against all mammalian behavior, which is roughly 200 million years old.
Still, he says, it's not that hit-and-run drivers lack empathy. It's that they lack enough empathy to involve themselves in a life-altering event that is perhaps not of their making. "And for strangers... you do less than you would for familiar people," he says. "Empathy is biased."
You'd think hit-and-run cases, as prevalent as they are, would attract a great deal of research, so we'd know more about the mentality involved, but this isn't so. When J. Thomas Dalby, a forensic psychologist at the University of Calgary, set out to review major studies of the field several years ago, the only one he found was from the 1940s.
His findings, and those of other small studies, tell you what you might already guess: Most of these incidents happen at night or on weekends; drivers who are apprehended often have alcohol in the bloodstream; they often have a history of traffic violations. There are no clear national statistics on how often hit-and-run drivers are caught and prosecuted.
"The most basic premise you can say is that these are successful criminals," says Dalby. "Even if you panic and think, just after the impact, 'Can I get away with this?' the answer is that you probably can. These are not witnessed in a lot of cases; you're already in the getaway car, and your foot is on the gas."
This is not a flattering thing to say about human beings, but there it is.
None of Tiara's closest friends or family say they knew at the time, or have figured out since, where she was going that night. At 1:38 a.m., she was about 10 miles from her parents' house, northbound on the Outer Loop. She resumed a conversation she had left off earlier with her friend Matt Dancy. Making light of his note that meeting her before midnight was too early, she texted back: "U funny."
Dancy's phone records show him replying within seconds, asking what she meant. When she didn't reply, he sent a follow-up message two minutes later, frustrated that they had not gotten together.
She texted back, also at 1:40: "Don't trip."
At almost this precise instant, a 24-year-old government worker named Tanisha Williams and a friend were on the Inner Loop, approaching the same exit from the opposite direction. Williams was in the fast lane, the one closest to the median.
She saw only one car on the Outer Loop. It was in the farthest, "slow" lane, and it began to brake and drift to the right — police would later measure Tiara's skid marks at 101 feet 5 inches — before it hit the guardrail, scraping along on the passenger side.
Then Williams saw the car careen off the rail and hurtle directly toward her, an out-of-control missile.
"It came from the right lane, all the way to the left," she recalls. "It was spinning. It went down in the median, it hit the guardrail and bounced back and came up in the air, like it was going to flip up in the air onto my side of the road."
She pulled to the far side of the road, at least half a mile past the wreck. Her friend got out and started back.
Williams dialed 911. The call is stamped at 1:43 — three minutes after Tiara's last text.
A moment later, her friend got back into the car, saying the wreck was too far back.
Williams remembers flooring it, pushing the car to 100 mph. It was two miles to the Pennsylvania Avenue exit. She hit the ramp, crossed over, and came flying back, her heart thumping, wondering if she was about to jump out of the car and try to save someone's life.
THE SEBRING SPUN hard against the guardrail, shooting backward until it crashed into a support pole, the collision jutting the battered nose back toward the roadway. It was in shambles. An axle was bent. The frame was twisted. The trunk and the hood were busted open, wreckage scattered in the weeds. The passenger window had shattered, spraying bits of star-shaped shrapnel.
But, otherwise, the interior of the car was pristine. The windshield was not cracked. The air bags had not inflated. There was not a drop of blood.
At this point, this was not a fatal accident. Tiara's parents were less than 15 minutes away. She did not know it, but Williams was almost within shouting distance, pulled over on the opposite side of the road, calling police and paramedics, and in seconds, all of them would be rushing to Tiara's aid.
But Tiara got out of the car shortly after 1:43 a.m. In the misting rain and the darkness, she walked or limped or crawled 30 feet toward the road, toward the light, toward someone she thought could help.
Williams was too late. An ambulance and a police car had just arrived when she got back. She slowed, pulled past the wreck, and drove home, relieved that paramedics arrived so quickly.
A few days after the wreck, after the body was identified, her mother got off the phone and told her something.
"It turns out that girl, Tiara, was my cousin," Williams says. "I had not met her. And I sure didn't know who it was on the road that night. But it was family, my family... and I might have driven by and left her out there."
©2014 by The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.