Jewish Law on Texting While Driving
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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The Orthodox community has been in a panic about the recent news that observant teenagers are texting on Shabbos. However, we must address a much greater life-and-death concern.

The National Transportation Safety Board just issued a sweeping recommendation to ban the use of mobile phones while driving. Even though distracted drivers cause thousands of accidents each year – about 3,000 documented highway fatalities, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of injuries – a writer in the Washington Post is still proclaiming that you will have to tear her cell phone from “her cold, driving hands.” How is it that one in five drivers still texts while driving? Texting while driving is currently illegal in 35 states – we have 15 to go! Thousands of lives are at stake.

Actually, according to Jewish law, if a driver were to kill another while texting, it would be, at the least, unintentional murder, and, at worst, an “act approaching the intentional” (Hilchot Rotzeiach 6:4). The moral battlefield exists in the unintentional realm. We are responsible to set up our lives so that caution deters us from making mistakes that cause great harm to others.

My esteemed mentor and colleague Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky argues: “To cause the death of another through an act of gross negligence – albeit unintentionally and without any premeditation – is categorized as a ‘great sin,’ one which legally approaches intentional murder.” He continues, “It is self-evident that our system demands that we not drive while distracted by -our cell phone, lest we, G-d forbid, inadvertently injure or kill someone.”

The Torah explains: “If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if one falls from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). Commentators explain that we are obligated to be extremely proactive to ensure that all of our property is only used in ways that avoid any possible harm to another.

A recent New York Times article suggested that “drivers using a phone are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers,” and that certain cell phone use makes one as unfit to drive as one with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent, a state of intoxication.

Until recently, I was texting while I was driving. It can be really hard to stop but we must! We must be terrified by the consequences.

Share this video on “The Dangers of Texting While Driving” with others. And this horrific video. Commit today to never again text while you are driving. Commit not to read or learn Torah on your iPhone while you are driving! Do it to save a life. Do it to save your own life. Do it because it is Jewish law!

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Last Update:

01/24/2012 - 12:50

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I think legislation has value in raising public awareness in forums like this one but it will be difficult to solely legislate our way out of this issue. I just read that over 3/4 of teens text daily - many text more than 4000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook - even with their professors. Tweens (ages 9 -12) send texts to each other from their bikes. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and its not going away.

I decided to do something about distracted driving after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver. Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple GPS based, texting auto reply app for smartphones. It also silences call ringtones while driving unless you have a bluetooth enabled. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws.

Erik Wood, owner

There are also a number of commandments with regard to duties and obligations to protect one's property and the right to make a living. The imposition of a cell phone ban creates massive costs and inconvenience on a large number of people. For many people who work on the road it essentially prevents them from making a living and one who is in poverty is "like a dead man". These costs are not ignored under Torah law. Furthermore, while texting and talking result in diminished response times, the analogy to drunk driving fails the evidence test. If as many people were driving drunk as are driving and texting, accident and death rates would be soaring, not continuing to fall. This is an expansion of government issue, which should be fought---not a Jewish issue.

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