Faculty member on leave from UI answers driver's request for help

IRVINE, Calif. — Biking home from work on a busy, dark street in Irvine, Calif., University of Illinois Professor Steve LaValle noticed something odd.

On the shoulder was a car with the driver's door standing open, and a man standing with one leg on the pavement and one on the brake.

As LaValle biked past, he heard the man ask for help.

LaValle made a quick decision and turned around. He tried to ask a few questions, but the man didn't know where he was or how he got there.

"He was just really, really confused," said LaValle, a computer science professor on leave from the UI.

The man mentioned that he had diabetes, so LaValle figured he might be having problems with low blood sugar.

LaValle called 911, and the dispatcher asked him to keep the man there until ambulances arrived.

Then he noticed the car starting to roll. The driver couldn't figure out how to stop it, so LaValle jumped behind him and put it in park.

The car had stopped less than 200 feet from a major intersection.

"Had he just kind of continued on past there," the situation would have been much worse, LaValle told The News-Gazette on Friday.

The incident happened about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday near the University of California-Irvine campus. That particular stretch of the road runs through a nature preserve and is "pitch black," LaValle said. "Cars were zipping by in the dark."

The driver said he had been unable to stop anyone because they were going by so fast.

"Luckily, he was able to get my attention," LaValle said. "He looked so genuinely confused, I figured I'll at least talk to him. It's so dark out there, if it had been someone bigger and younger I might have been worried."

The man, who was dressed in work clothes, told LaValle that he was a certified public accountant who worked nearby and had turned the wrong way on that street.

"He had enough sense to pull over, but he was kind of out of it after that," LaValle said.

After he took a glucose pill, the man felt better and tried to keep driving, but LaValle stopped him until he could be evaluated.

Police and ambulances arrived within 10 minutes, and LaValle left after he was sure the man was OK.

The police officers said they would give LaValle some kind of good-citizen coin, but "they were out of them," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Irvine Police Department was not available to comment Friday.

LaValle, 42, received his doctoral degree from the UI in 1995 and has been a professor there since 2001. In 2012, he was one of seven Urbana campus faculty members named University Scholars, which recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and service.

He is currently working as head scientist for Oculus VR, which is developing a low-cost virtual-reality headset.

LaValle's father, Richard LaValle, who lives in Savoy, contacted The News-Gazette about the story.

It wasn't the first time LaValle has had a chance to be a good samaritan.

Several years ago, on a trip to the Lake of the Ozarks, he saw a young couple driving in front of him lose control of their vehicle on a hilly, winding road. The car, which was full of suitcases and other belongings, flipped upside down on the side of the road.

LaValle said he stayed by the car talking to the couple until emergency crews arrived. He advised them not to move until paramedics got there, in case they had injured their necks, but he pulled some things out of their way.

"That was much more dramatic. They were seat-belted upside down," he said. The couple wasn't badly hurt.

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