Thursday, January 5, 2017

Joseph's Driver Safety Tips - Torah portion Vayigash

Joseph dispatches his brothers to Canaan to bring the entire family to Egypt, and offers some parting advice.
"And he sent his brothers, and they went, and he said to them: Don't become agitated along the way." (Gen 45:24)
"Become agitated" is a translation for "tirgezu" (from rogez), which in Biblical Hebrew implies emotional volatility, even shaking, in anger or distress. Rashi offers three explanations of the agitation Joseph warns against:
1. "Do not engage in a halakhic discussion, so the road does not agitate against you" (i.e. so that it is not unsafe for you, or alternatively, so you don't lose the way).

2. "Do not take large steps" (i.e. travel inordinately fast), "and enter the city in the sunlight" (i.e. travel during daylight hours).

3. "[Joseph] was worried that they might quarrel along the way about the matter of selling him [into slavery in Egypt], to argue with one another."
The third explanation, says Rashi, is the pshat (plain meaning) of the text - don't become upset with each other along the way. The first two explanations are citations from the Talmud (BT Ta'anit 10b), in the category of "drash" (homiletic interpretation).

Whereas the goal of pshat is to understand the meaning of the text per se, drash embodies the desire to impart ideas and values, relevant to people and their lives. With drash, the Torah text provides an anchor for a teaching - spiritual, moral, and sometimes just practical.

In this case, it seems clear that the sages of the Talmud were in the habit of getting engrossed in such vigorous and intricate discussions of halakha that the outside world almost didn't exist. That's great in the beit midrash (study hall), but when traveling long distances along dangerous roads, they would need to keep their wits about them and focus on where they were going. So not getting overly distracted in a discussion was sound advice, and attaching it to the "do not become agitated along the way" verse offered a helpful mnemonic to recall that advice.

Is this travel advice relevant to our day? Absolutely - in fact, it's critical.

The verse says: "Don't become agitated along the way." The Talmud adds: Don't be unduly distracted. Don't travel too quickly. And travel during daylight hours... It's not hard to see how to apply this nowadays to driving safety.
Don't be agitated = Don't drive angry, or aggressively.

Don't be distracted = Don't text or otherwise take your eyes from the road.

Don't travel too quickly = Don't speed in order to get somewhere faster.

Travel during daylight = Drive carefully at night, and don't drive if you're overtired.
Approximately 1.25 million people are killed in traffic-related accidents around the world each year. These figures include motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. 1.25 million is hard to wrap the mind around. Imagine walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium, filled with 50,000 people, all killed in car accidents. Then imagine 25 of these Yankee Stadiums, one after another, and you get the idea. And this happens every year.

Yes, if we were measuring heart disease, we'd be talking close to 150 Yankee Stadiums. But road fatalities are in the top 10 leading causes of death around the world. Some countries are more dangerous to drive in than others. For instance, you probably want to avoid driving in Eritrea, with 48.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. Micronesia is a safe bet with less than 2 per 100,000 people. (But then the island nation only has 100,000 people.) Israel actually makes the top 10 safest driving countries with 3.3 per 100,000. The U.S. is 11.6 per 100,000, twice as many as Canada.

But obviously location isn't the factor to change - it's our driving habits.

We have to stop being "agitated" on the road, driving when we're emotionally volatile - either upset or angry, or anxious about being late. These emotions cause us to drive erratically, irresponsibly, aggressively. It brings us to speed, tailgate, pass other cars when it's not safe, weave in and out of traffic, and perform all kinds of risky maneuvers on the road. A recent study found that driving while emotionally agitated makes people 10 times more likely to get in an accident.

We have to stop doing things that take our eyes off the road. Let's start with mobile devices. Texting makes us 6 times more likely to get in an accident. Dialing a phone number is actually double that. But it's not just phones. Reaching for anything in the car makes us 9 times more likely to crash. Reading or jotting down notes, 10 times more likely. Distracted driving is an epidemic. Distracted walking is too, though in a 1.5 to 3 ton car, we're also operating a deadly weapon. That thought needs to sink in every time we get behind the wheel.

We have to slow down. I'm not just talking about high speed limits, which correlate to more fatalities. I mean driving faster than is safe in a given situation. When we're driving in places where people could potentially cross the street, we need time to react. On my own dead-end street, where there are no sidewalks and people can walk out onto the street at any moment, even 20 kph (12 mph) is too fast. I'm constantly telling people to slow down. Getting somewhere a few minutes or seconds earlier is not worth the risk.

We have to be even more careful at night. All the risks of driving are magnified at night, because we can't see as well, even in well-lit spaces. A disproportionate number of road fatalities take place after dark. Our reaction time is just not as good. So again, s-l-o-w down. Remain constantly aware of the road so that you'll have time to stop. Because you may not be able to see a person, object, or animal until they enter the path of your headlights. Which gives you very little time to stop. Also, don't blind oncoming drivers with your brights. And if you're sleepy, pull over and rest.

There are of course lots of other risk factors to talk about - non-use of seat belts and helmets, driving while intoxicated, etc. Suffice it to say we have much room for improvement in terms of our "derech eretz" - how we conduct ourselves on the derech, on the road.

"Don't become agitated (distracted, reckless, aggressive) along the way."

The sages turned this verse into a mnemonic. We need to make it into our mantra, every time we sit in the driver's seat. Peoples lives, and our own lives, depend on it.

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