MPH: Miles per halacha

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

Those words seem even more relevant today than when I first wrote them in 2010.

According to news reports, seven people died on New Jersey roads last weekend, making it the worst weekend so far in 2016.

The year itself is shaping up to be New Jersey’s deadliest in quite a while. There have been 324 accidents and 341 deaths since January 1 — 50 deaths in just Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties. In 2015, those numbers were 291 and 309 respectively; there were 305 accidents and 328 deaths until this point in 2014.

The 2014 total amounted to one death for every 70.2 miles of New Jersey’s 39,042 miles of public roads. It also bucked a national trend, which had just recorded “a three-year low,” according to State Police superintendent Col. Joseph “Rick” Fuentes.

In 2014, New Jersey “recorded 523 fatal collisions that resulted in 556 deaths,” an increase over 2013, and “resulting in an average of 1.52 motor vehicle fatalities per day,” Fuentes said.

Neither bad weather nor winding roads were at fault, according to the Fatal Accident Investigation Unit within the State Police. Two-thirds of the deaths occurred on straight roads, it said; about 80 percent of the accidents happened on clear days. Interestingly, said the FAIU, nearly 71 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes were men.

Alcohol, on the other hand, was a factor in many of the 2014 deaths; 31.3 percent of those who died had consumed some alcohol before getting in their cars. Of all drivers, 12.2 percent were legally intoxicated.

This is not a great surprise. In 2010, 21 percent of drivers responding to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll admitted to first drinking and then driving. The more educated among us were the worst offenders. According to a press release accompanying the PublicMind Poll, 30 percent of respondents with a post-college education admit to it, as opposed to 20 percent of those who never graduated college.

Speeding also is a factor. The poll showed that 84 percent of Garden State drivers push the pedal over 65 miles per hour at least some of the time, while 47 percent go over 75 mph. An amazing 25 percent of New Jersey drivers actually said they believed that 75 mph is the “real” speed limit in the state.

Then there are the texters and the talkers: In 2010, 21 percent of Garden Staters admitted to sending text messages while driving. In 2015, according to a survey commissioned by Plymouth Rock Assurance, that number had soared to 33 percent.

Thirty-eight percent in the Plymouth Rock survey said they used handheld cell phones while driving. That also was up from 2010, when the PublicMind Poll showed only 18 percent using handheld devices.

For the record, a New England Journal of Medicine study some years ago found that cellphone use of any kind increases the risk of an accident by 400 percent —the same risk as the one posed by driving while intoxicated.

So where do the Torah and halacha come into this? It is simple, really: Bad driving behavior not only violates state law, it also violates Jewish law. In a very real sense, the Torah (in this sense, both written and oral) prohibits speeding, driving under the influence, using cellphones, playing with onboard computer maps, looking at someone 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.”

True, a pit is not a car, and besides, Moses never heard of a car. The “open pit,” however, represents all things with the potential for causing harm.

Then there is the “law of the parapet” (see Deuteronomy 22:8), which includes “everything that is inherently dangerous and, in normal circumstances, could cause a person to die,” according to Maimonides. (See the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11:4.)

Because of these two laws especially, it is correct to say the Torah bans handheld cell phones in cars. Driving with one hand while engaging in conversation is placing a dangerous hazard (a moving automobile) in a public domain; a cell phone in a car increases the chances of an accident occurring.

How the Torah 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 Yaakov Weiss, the “Minchat Yitzchak,” whose halachic rulings often dealt with contemporary technological, social, and economic matters.

Rabbi Weiss ruled “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….’”

The bottom line: Bad behavior behind the wheel is like digging a hole in the ground, and that hole could end up being someone’s grave.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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