accessibility & help

Burning car rescue

Say to students that they are about to watch a dramatic scene. They will see a burning car. Trapped under it is a motorcyclist, whose bike is also in flames. As they watch, ask them to prepare to answer the question – if you were there, what would you do?

You may want to reassure students that the injured man survived, after time spent recovering in hospital. He is Brandon Wright, 21, a student at Utah State University, near where the accident happened on 12 September 2011.

Learning objectives

By the end of the activity students will be able to:

  • identify some options for action when faced with a man trapped under a burning car
  • describe some of the factors that might influence what they themselves would do to help someone in extreme danger
  • provide several reasons to explain why people sometimes decide not to help a stranger.

Age range


Curriculum links

PSHE, Citizenship


Play the video with the audio switched off to omit the cameraman's commentary.

After discussion of immediate responses, try to agree a description of the behaviour of the people who lift the car. What adjectives best describe their actions?

What would you have done?

Ask students what they would have done if they had been there. Log the answers. They are likely to come under one of three categories – do nothing, respond or delay:

  • Do nothing. Just get to a safe place. It's too dangerous and you might make things worse.
  • Respond. Get stuck in and do what you can, as fast as you can.
  • Delay. Wait to see what happens, and follow someone else who knows what they are doing.

Ask students what influences the choice of whether someone does nothing, reponds or delays? Is it personality, skills, or the circumstances of the particular event?

Explore this by asking whether their responses would be different if:

  • the person under the car was a close relative.
  • they themselves were a fully trained paramedic and experienced responder to road traffic incidents.
  • they were seven years old.
  • someone in authority told them to stand back and keep safe. 
  • they were the only person around.

Bystander behaviour

Now explore the detail of what actually happened using the following insights into bystander behaviour. They are based on research into what people in the UK actually do when they are on the scene of an emergency.

  • People respond better to events, a problem or situation that they can easily identify, than to individuals. They are more likely to act if they understand the task, and feel confident about solving the problem.
  • People get caught up in the event, the task, the dynamic of what is happening around them. They can almost lose sight of the casualty.
  • Once the task is completed, or the immediate danger is over, people often fade away. They lose confidence in their ability to help any further.

Briefly discuss these descriptions of behaviour. Do students recognise them? Show the video again and ask students to note when what people are doing seems to fit these categories.

Is there agreement in the group – for example that at 0:40 on the video, people are very caught up in their activity? And that by 0:54 they have begun to vanish from the scene?

According to news reports the woman who lay on the ground and looked under the car shouted, "He’s alive". That encouraged more people to run to the car and lift it. How significant do students think understanding the emergency was?

Talk about the great risk involved in helping lift a burning vehicle. Each person who took part thought the risk was worth taking. What would students think of someone who decided not to take the risk? Would they be critical or understanding?

Barriers to action

Then share the following further points from research:

  • Having more bystanders does not necessarily increase the chances that someone will respond to an emergency. It can be that the more people are around, the less likely a casualty is to be helped.
  • People often gather around and no one actually intervenes. Everyone thinks that someone else has already responded. Or they feel that someone else knows more than they do about what to do.
  • Someone with leadership qualities will sometimes step forward and dissuade people from taking action. They may argue for not doing anything because doing something could make things worse.

Working in pairs or small groups, ask students to come up with examples they know of, from direct experience, a news item, anecdote or television storyline, where a group of people do not respond to someone who seems to need help.

It could be a major event, such as someone lying in the street while others drive past. Or it could be an everyday incident, say where someone knocks over products in a shop display or loses a contact lens on a train or bus.

Then make two lists using the examples, of reasons someone would want to help, and reasons why they don't.

In a plenary, share the lists, then work on the "reasons not to help" list, which you could call the barriers list. It may look something like this:

  • anxious about making things worse
  • looks complicated
  • afraid of being rejected, told off, or otherwise humiliated
  • don't know what to do
  • worried about fainting
  • too busy
  • not sure if it was real, could be a trap
  • person could be drunk.

Think of ways people could work on these barriers. What change in knowledge, skills or attitude would make a difference? How could that change come about?

Talk about the challenge of striking a sensible balance between avoiding danger and helping when you can.

Encourage students to draw up their own personal list with action points. Don't demand instant results, though. It's a major project that can last a lifetime.



This resource was written by P. J. White and produced in September 2011. It was reviewed in February 2013.


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