Atlanta has seen its fair share of roadway oddities. Having a growing populace and increasing traffic volume only increases the likelihood of everything, including the eccentric and memorable road interruptions. What transpired on I-285 near Ashford Dunwoody Road Tuesday evening was memorable not just for what happened, but for how people reacted in that carnal instant.
An armored car lost almost all of its $175,000 haul on I-285/westbound (Outer Loop) near the Perimeter Mall exit, when its side door somehow opened. Talk about a payload. As the greenbacks flew and landed in the right lanes, the emergency lane, and the nearby woods, motorists pulled all cattywampus to the shoulder and even in the lanes and began helping “clean the mess”. Well, not really.
Some drivers in the area saw a payday and they must have figured the gains were worth the risk. They stopped in the middle of I-285 without protection and started grabbing whatever flying denominations of bills they could find. The scene had to be surreal to just about anyone who saw it in person. The videos that passersby shot were quite striking, but for multiple reasons.
The sheer stupidity and thoughtlessness of stopping in traffic to grab anything is hard to put into words. I-285 is a live field of play. It’s a hot pit road (in racing parlance). Walking in the middle of or, in some cases, on the shoulders of freeways should be given the same treatment as a fan streaking at a game. Doing so not only risks the lives of those outside of their vehicles, but it puts into peril those swerving to avoid them. Unless absolutely necessary, people need to stay in their vehicles on interstates and busy roads.
The time of day that this debacle took place makes exiting vehicles even more dangerous. The cash started flying at around 8 p.m., meaning that PM drive was effectively over. While exiting cars is a terrible idea during the slow grind of a high commuting hour, doing this when traffic is back up to speed is even more ridiculous. Reaction windows are far less, impacts are harder, and carnage can be greater. Playing as children at the breaking of the great freeway piñata could have easily resulted in these people ending up more like used piñatas than sugar-buzzed eight-year olds.
But the real layer of interest in this post-evening rush hour money grab is people’s snap reactions in this moment of surprise and ecstasy and then the days following. To those who stopped to gather the liberated bounty and maybe even to you hearing the story, the first thought might simply have been, “Free money!” Once that money left the truck, it must have been free, public domain like the lyrics and melody of “Happy Birthday.” Not at all. Fits and the Tantrums’ “Moneygrabber” would be the more appropriate song.
The money may have seemed harmless to take because it didn’t come directly from the hands to which it belonged. People picking up the contents of an armored car don’t feel like they are taking money from the actual person whose bank account it belongs to or the businesses or banks from which the money came. They don’t think that the armored car company or the insurance company they use has to somehow recoup that loss. It’s just free money from a faceless entity spewing in the wind, landing harmlessly for some people who obviously need it more.
Another thing driving drivers to grab money that doesn’t belong to them may be the seeming veil of anonymity. This same foggy barrier between ourselves and the outside world is what causes us to act far more aggressively behind the wheel than in person. Pulling over on I-285 and quickly grabbing a grand or two of cash seems like a far better endeavor when there is a four-wheeled escape pod close by and no one around you knows who you are. Dunwoody Police might, however.
Dunwoody authorities have asked the public nicely to return the cash they found. Since the armored car stopped, the police know who the money belongs to. And they have said that anyone who turns in the money can do so without penalty … for now. But they also said that they have video and photos of tag numbers, ripping down that anonymity veil that the money-hungry thought they had. Although they probably won’t ever be able to tell how much money each driver in the videos got, that threat could hopefully prompt some people to at least return some of the unexpected bounty back to its rightful owners.
As of the time of this writing, less than $5,000 had been returned — less than 3%. That unfortunately says a lot about the respect and duty that some people lack. But it also says a lot about their shortsightedness regarding not just property, but safety. Their selfish decisions to stop in traffic put themselves and those around them in danger. And they did this just to essentially loot the misfortune and mistake of the armored car operators. Atlanta, Dunwoody, Perimeter drivers — we can do better than this.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.