This post originally appeared in August of 2009, but has become only more urgent since then. At the time I wrote it as “a prayer for the full and speedy recovery of Margalit bat Miriam, who was struck and thrown from her wheelchair by a driver who did not see that the light had turned red, because he was speaking on his cellphone.” Margalit bat Miriam has since passed away.
The Federal government has begun the slow process of determining whether or not there ought to be national laws regarding cellphone use while driving. All of us who are committed to living according to Halacha need not wait for a government decision. The verdict is already in.
The halachik analysis of this issue proceeds in a very linear fashion, beginning in the classical discussion concerning unintentional murder. The Torah, as we read just recently, commands that we create cities of refuge for people who have unintentionally taken the life of another person. By fleeing to the city of refuge, the one who unintentionally took the life is protected from the impassioned wrath of the “blood-avenger” (the kinsman of the victim). In addition to being protected, he also will be paying for his act, as he will remain confined to the city of refuge until the High Priest dies.
In its analysis of this passage from the Torah, the Talmud makes it clear that not all unintentional murder is the same. (For a quick summary of the Talmud’s discussion, see Maimonides’ code, Laws of the Murderer, Chapter 6). Sometimes the death of the victim is truly the result of a freak accident. In this case, the person who caused the accident does not flee to the city of refuge. In the eyes of the law, he is completely innocent. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the instance in which again, there was no intention to kill anyone, but the person who caused the death of the other acted with such carelessness and recklessness, that his actions are classified as “approaching the intentional”. This person as well does not flee to a city of refuge. To quote Maimonides (paragraph 4):
There is also the case of one who kills unintentionally, but his act approaches the intentional, as it involves an act of negligence, or is in an instance in which he should have been cautious but was not. He does not flee to the city of refuge for his sin is too great to be atoned for through his exile… Therefore if the blood avenger finds and kills him, he (the blood avenger) is exempt form punishment.
Putting aside for a moment any uncomfortable feelings we may have about the law of the blood avenger, the larger point concerning the perpetrator’s act is clear. 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.
What do we know about the likelihood of a driver causing a car accident when he or she is speaking on a cellphone (not to mention texting)? As reported in the NY Times on July 19, the likelihood that a driver holding and talking on a cellphone will crash, is equal to that of a driver whose blood alcohol level is .08 percent – the legal definition of driving while intoxicated. As the Times article put it, “drivers using phone are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers”. The article goes on to quote a Harvard study estimating that cellphone distraction causes thousand of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of injuries per year. The potential for committing a “great sin” is astonishingly high. And the research is not showing that using a hands-free phone significantly reduces this potential either.
As halachikly observant Jews, we go to great lengths to lower our risk of sinning. We do not climb trees on Shabbat lest we inadvertently violate Shabbat by breaking a branch. Many of us do not eat corn or beans on Pesach; lest we come to eat inadvertently eat chametz. On the first day of Rosh Hashana this year, we will actually set aside the Biblical mitzva of blowing shofar, lest we inadvertently carry the shofar through the public domain, thus violating the Shabbat. It is self-evident that our system demands that we not drive while distracted by our cellphone, lest we, God forbid, God forbid, inadvertently injure or kill someone. It’s that straightforward.
If for no other reason though, do it for Margalit bat Miriam.