MPH: Miles per halacha
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MPH: Miles per halacha

When you get behind the wheel, think Torah. It may save someone’s life – perhaps even yours.

In the first six weeks of 2010, 32 drivers, 12 passengers, 18 pedestrians, and one bicyclist were killed in 59 fatal traffic accidents in New Jersey. That works out to three deaths every two days.

Keeping the faith – One religious perspective on issues of the day The early 2010 statistics do not go into detail regarding the types of accidents, but a look at previous years offers a clue. Thus, in 2008, the last full year for which traffic fatality statistics are available, 590 people lost their lives in New Jersey. Of these deaths, 154 were alcohol-related, while 65 involved speeding.

In other words, more than 40 percent of the fatalities on New Jersey roads in 2008 were due either to speeding or to drinking (or both).

As a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll shows, New Jerseyans love to speed. According to the survey, which was sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, 84 percent of Garden State drivers push the pedal over the 65 miles per hour at least some of the time and 47 percent go over 75 mph. An amazing 25 percent of New Jersey drivers actually believe that 75 mph is the “real” speed limit in the state.

The PublicMind Poll also revealed that 21 percent of Garden Staters admit sending text messages while driving, up six percent from a year ago. Although more than 57 percent of texting drivers are under 30 (what a surprise), people between the ages of 30 and 44 have picked up the habit in significant numbers.

Then there are the drivers who use their time behind the wheel to make telephone calls. While only 18 percent of those surveyed said they still use hand-held cell phones to make those calls, research shows that even using a hands-free phone while driving can be dangerous. A New England Journal of Medicine study, for example, found that cell-phone use increases the risk of an accident by 400 percent – the same risk as the one posed by driving while intoxicated.

That brings us to drinking and driving, something else many New Jerseyans also like to do, according to the survey. Twenty-one percent of responding drivers admit drinking first and then driving. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to drink and drive. According to a press release accompanying the survey, “30 percent of respondents with a post-college education admit to it, compared to fewer than one in five of those who don’t have a college diploma.”

So what does any of this have to do with this column? It is simple, really: Bad driving behavior violates state law and it also violates Jewish law. In a very real sense, the Torah prohibits speeding, driving under the influence, using cell phones, playing with on-board computer maps, looking at people while talking to them and driving at the same time, chomping on a hot dog, double-parking on a busy street, parking in a crosswalk, or otherwise engaging in behavior behind the wheel that endangers lives or property.

The Torah’s main prohibition in this regard is found in Exodus 21:33-34. “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.”

I know – a pit is not a car and, besides, Moses never heard of a car. There is no way for a law written 3,500 years to enumerate every contingency that will occur in the future. If the law is a Torah law, however, it must cover every contingency. That is why Torah law relies on “symbols” and on an oral law to apply these symbols – and in the eyes of the oral law, the open pit is a symbol for all things that have the potential for causing harm.

That is why it is correct to say “the Torah bans hand-held cell phones in cars” when neither cell phones nor cars existed when the Torah was written. Driving with one hand while engaged in conversation is placing a dangerous hazard (a moving automobile) in a public domain.

The Torah also banned driving a car with snow on the roof long before New Jersey did (or anyone else, for that matter). This is derived from the law that requires a person to build a parapet around his or her roof when building a house, “that you should not bring any blood upon your house.” (See Deuteronomy 22:8.)

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11:4, explains that this dictum includes “everything that is inherently dangerous and, in normal circumstances, could cause a person to die.”

How the oral law applies the open pit and the parapet to matters automotive can be seen in a responsum issued a half-century ago by the late Rabbi Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss, the “Minchat Yitzchak,” whose halachic rulings often dealt with contemporary technological, social, and economic matters.

“It is clear,” Rabbi Weiss wrote, “that a driver who exceeds the speed limit, and thus cannot stop his car when it is necessary, has the legal status of rodef, ‘a pursuer with the intent to kill….’ The same applies to drivers who do not obey traffic signs or who pass other cars in a hazardous fashion, or who drive without having obtained a driver’s license. Although they do not willfully endanger other people’s lives, they are in the category of rodef….

“This also includes drivers who park their cars in a way that poses a hazard to pedestrians or who park on the sidewalk, thereby forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. These are classified as people ‘who dig a pit in a public domain….'”

From the standpoint of Jewish law, then, bad behavior behind the wheel is like digging a hole in the ground. From a statistical point of view, that hole could end up being someone’s grave.

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