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Driving Like a Mentch

A few years ago at the foot of the highway known as New York 17, there was a horrific car accident resulting in three Jewish fatalities.  This tragedy took place on a Friday afternoon as thousands of men made their weekly trek back up to their families in the Catskills.  Since the ‘17’ is basically the only artery up to the Catskills from the metropolitan New York City and New Jersey areas, this accident caused a massive traffic jam that resulted in hundreds of people sitting in their cars for up to seven hours and, even worse, causing many people to arrive at their destinations on Shabbos.  When such an event that wreaks havoc in so many people’s lives occurs, the smart person studies it and tries to figure out what he or she can learn from such a happening.  This is particularly true when thousands of people use this route daily and might – with a chill – realize that what happened to those unfortunate victims could have just as easily happened to them, Rachmana litzlan.

I think at first such a terrible vehicular fatality dictates that we review with our loved ones and ourselves the basic elements of driving safety.  While seatbelts are a nuisance, they certainly save lives.  A good friend of mine, Dr. Averick, who served as a triage specialist in a prominent trauma center, told me that he never had to pronounce dead a car accident victim who was wearing a seatbelt.  So please, buckle up!

Another important issue is the subject of driving when drowsy.  Many car accidents and deaths are attributed to people who nodded off at the wheel.  The New York custom of thousands of Jewish men coming up to vacation for the weekend and returning late Sunday evening is a recipe for disaster.  After cramming davening, Daf Yomi, ball playing, swimming with the kids, shopping with the wife, barbequing with the family, and Mincha and Maariv into a single Sunday, he gets in the car on the verge of collapse for the long commute home.  One must exercise extreme caution not to sit behind the wheel when there is even a remote chance of falling asleep.  For some, the solution to this problem is to schedule a Sunday afternoon nap on the hammock or in the air-conditioned room.  For others, it is to wisely choose to sleep over Sunday night and leave early on Monday morning (even if it means traveling before davening).  This suggestion has the added advantage of affording husband and wife another evening together – something that should be the objective as much as possible anyway.

We Jews, especially New Yorkers, are always in a rush and this manifests itself on the road.  We speed even when there is fog or other inclement weather conditions – even when there are deer lurking in the woods and bungalow colonies full of children on both sides of the narrow roads.  We also have a vast population of walkers and joggers who exercise, sometimes unwisely, three abreast on these narrow and winding country roads.  When the city speeder comes around the bend, it is – at best – a very close squeak by indeed.  Then, there is the vehicular madness known as “passing,” where impatient drivers (usually youthful ones) start tailgating the car in front of them on a one lane country road.  When there is a break in the double yellow line they bravely shoot out into the opposing lanes’ traffic at high speed, passing the car that was going a mere 55 miles per hour.  I have watched with dismay when these young drivers act as if they are playing Pac Man, weaving their vehicles in and out, not realizing that, unlike in the video game, neither they nor others get another life if they make a mistake.

It goes without saying that one should not be driving – especially at high speeds – on the highway with a cellphone in one’s hand.  While most of us are quite capable to maneuver with one hand, if there is – G-d forbid – a flat tire or a sudden accident ahead, that phone in our hands could mean all of the difference from being able to swerve to safety in the nick of time.

An important benefit of practicing driving safety, besides arriving home alive and in one piece, is that we avoid making a chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s Name.  When people who are identifiably Jewish speed, pass, tailgate, or do any other foolish vehicular practice, the people who witness it look in disgust and say, ‘Look how Jews drive.’  This is a terrible chilul Hashem and as such must be avoided at all costs.  So, for starters, let’s sit down and talk with our families about these rudimentary lessons.

Finally, an obvious lesson from this Friday afternoon disaster is to leave even more time for our commute.  One should never say, ‘I’ll leave 5:00 for Shabbos doesn’t begin for another three and a half hours,’ for as we’ve observed, when a mishap happens, one needs a lot more time!!

Then, let’s go to the next step.  Are we saying our Tefilas HaDerech with a proper kavanah, proper concentration and feeling?  What about our kavanah when we daven Maariv on Sunday night and in it we say the stanza in the bracha of Hashkiveinu, “U’shmor tseiseinu u’vo-einu l’chaim u’l’shalom meiatah v’ad olam – [Please G-d,] guard our goings and our comings for life and for peace, from now and forever.”  Isn’t it meaningful, when thousands of people take to the roads, to beseech Hashem that all of our goings and comings should be safe and peaceful?

May Hashem bless us that in our fulfillment of the mitzvah d’Oriasa, the Biblical command, ‘Ushemartem meod nafshoseichem – Guarding exceedingly our lives,’ and our collective prayers for each other, may we be zoche to have long life, good health with safety, and everything wonderful.