Scott Farrell comments:
You’re cruising along the highway when you see a bunch of green bills fluttering around like flakes in a snow globe. You get closer and you realize it’s cash. Other drivers are pulling over to snatch what they can. What do you do?
If you want to check someone’s sense of ethics (including your own), you can start by asking one simple question: What would you do if you thought no one was watching you?
It’s a quandary that goes back to the writings of Plato and the famous Ring of Gyges — an enchanted ring that, the great philosopher supposed, would turn the wearer invisible and allow him to get away with anything he wanted, completely unobserved.
If you were unknown and unseen, would it change who you are and what you’re willing to do? Is your sense of honor, decency, or chivalry predicated on the fact that someone you respect might be watching you?
A recent incident involving a bag of cash scattered on a busy highway brought those questions into very non-hypothetical focus. The AP did a very informal “what would you do?” survey, and the results were surprising – and more than a little startling. Many respondents said they would have taken the opportunity to pocket a few bills themselves … but only if their children were not there to see them do it. (As if the kids wouldn’t already be aware that their parents had a pretty shaky sense of honesty, just because they hadn’t seen it in action.)
You can’t put the brakes on chivalry, decency, and integrity just because you think no one’s watching when you’ve got a chance to snatch up a quick, unearned buck. Abandoning your own sense of honor just isn’t worth the price.
Some drivers in Maryland faced that choice (in March 2012) when two plastic bags containing about $5,700 in bills and coins fell from an unlatched door on an armored truck and spilled onto Interstate 270 about 35 miles northwest of Washington.
One witness said she saw about 30 cars pulled over on the shoulders and people frantically collecting fistfuls of cash. Police say the motorists grabbed almost all of it. Others kept driving.
Imagine having your commute turn into a morality play. What’s your first reaction? Do you slam on the brakes, jump onto a busy highway and start scrambling? Do you slow down to get a closer look? Or do you keep driving, guilt-free but without a surprise payday? OK, now what if your kids were in the car?
The answers from several people who spoke to The Associated Press on Friday offer a glimpse into the minds of Americans trying to juggle doing the right thing and getting by in a tough economy where even a few unexpected dollars can be a blessing.
It wasn’t hypothetical for attorney Heather Kelly, who was driving to her office in Frederick when she passed through the surreal scene. She didn’t see the armored truck but noticed the two clear plastic bags of currency along the road and people snatching the $1 to $50 bills wafting through the air and skittering along the highway.
“It was in the traffic lanes and on the shoulders and just generally kind of like a snow globe of cash,” she said. “Some people had fists full of money, fists full of dollars, and other people were just still trying to collect.”
Kelly decided it was too risky to stop, though no one was injured. She said she wouldn’t have stopped even if it was a two-lane road with no other traffic.
“It was really unclear what was going on and I like to stay away from that type of thing,” she said.
The truck belonged to Garda World Security Services Corp., a Montreal-based security and cash logistics company, spokesman Joe Gavaghan said. He said they’re cooperating with state police investigators to find out what happened.
Maryland State Police urged people to return the money to the agency’s barracks in Rockville, with no questions asked and no charges filed. As of Friday afternoon, no one had.
So what would you do?
Chicago billing clerk Stephany Harris, 53, didn’t miss a beat.
“Of course I would,” she said. “If the armored car had been in an accident of something, I’d make sure the drivers were OK and I’d call 911. But I’d put as much money in my pockets (as I could) and run.”
But what if her kids were there? “I absolutely would not take any money,” she answered again without hesitation. “I wouldn’t want them to get the message that grabbing money that is not yours is the right thing to do.”
Jeff Bora, 30, of Chicago said he would stop to make sure none of the money was stolen.
“I’d start picking it up and I’d call police right away,” he said.
As a former lawyer and prosecutor, he knows that it’s stealing and he could land in serious trouble. Even if he was alone and could get away undetected, he said he still wouldn’t do it: “It would be about how I would feel about myself later. Bad karma would get me in the end.”
Another kind of karma occurred to Dennis Lowe, 30, of Providence, R.I. He said it’s simple human nature, especially if the money is from an armored truck. He said plenty of Americans are fed up with banks, insurance companies and other corporations that move cash in armored trucks.
“The money is insured,” he said while waiting downtown for a bus. “They’ve been taking money from me, so it’s just karma.”
He said he likely would have stopped to grab a few bills, but it might depend on where he was going. He planned to watch his alma mater, Xavier University, on TV in the NCAA basketball tournament on Friday night.
What if he spotted the cash on his way to catch the game? Watch his team or grab the greenbacks?
“Watch Xavier,” he said. “No question.”
In Southern California, where mammoth freeways and gridlock are a way of life, 19-year-old Stephen Schreiber worried about causing traffic.
“I don’t want to get hit by some cars and I don’t want to cause traffic,” he said while working at a coffee shop in Tustin.
He did see one possibility: “What kind of car are we driving? A convertible? Because then maybe my hand or my butterfly net would just stick up and grab some as I drive on by, but otherwise I probably wouldn’t stop,” he said.
Anthony Janni, 36, a bartender in Hagerstown, said he understands why people would stop for “money that seems to just fall into their hands,” but he probably wouldn’t have done so.
“The highway’s not necessarily the place to do something like that,” Janni said. “It’s not something worth causing an accident over.”
Brian Gates, 32, of Cincinnati said he would get out to pick up the cash, with a few conditions. If he had kids and they were in the car, he wouldn’t do it. He also wouldn’t risk his safety.
“I’m not going to take a chance of endangering my life or others for money,” he said.
If he was alone? “Oh yeah! If there is money out there. We can all use money.”
The economy lurked in the decision-making for Gates and others.
Gates believes it’s much harder economically now for the middle class than in his parents’ day because “everything costs more.”
“I bought a little economy car to help with gas, when gas was two dollars, and now it’s doubled. I never thought I would have to pay four dollars for gas.”
Jeanetta Campbell, 40, is a part-time mail clerk for the U.S. Postal Service in Cincinnati. She said she certainly wouldn’t leave her kids in a car to chase money and she probably wouldn’t do it if she was alone.
The denomination of the bills might make a difference.
“If it was hundred-dollar bills, it would be worth it,” she said, laughing. “But if was just (single) dollars, no.”
She’s a single mother with three sons and a grandson. Her youngest son, 17, is still at home. She finds it “harder all the time to make ends meet.”
Maybe the economy makes people more likely to go chase cash on a highway, she speculated, recalling her own single mother: “My mother still had to struggle, but I think the economy was better when we were growing up than it is now.”
Associated Press Writers David Klepper in Providence, R.I., Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, Michael Tarm in Chicago and Gillian Flaccus in Tustin, Calif., contributed to this report.