The Jewish Ethicist: How's My Talking?
"How's my driving?" Should you really tell them what you think?
Q. Should I call the "How's my driving?" number if the driver is careless?
A. By now it's a familiar site all over the developed world: the vehicle in front of you bears a prominent sticker asking, "How's my driving?" and showing a toll-free number to report. Why is the sticker there? The fleet operator hopes to reduce accidents among their vehicles, and to improve public good will by showing concern for the well-being of other drivers.
The initiative, begun about a decade ago, has mushroomed in recent years. Studies show that the benefits of the program in improved safety records have been impressive. One insurer found that crash costs were reduced by about half since the program began. The source of this saving is two-fold: each driver drives more safely knowing he or she is being monitored; and the most accident prone drivers are removed. Conversely, anticipated negative impacts, such as malicious reporting, have been minimal. Finally, the explosion in mobile phone use immensely increases the convenience of reporting driver behavior. As a result, many more fleets voluntarily adopted the program, while many local governments mandated it. In 2005, Israel became the first country to obligate all commercial vehicles to bear these stickers.
The program has also generated some controversy. Drivers are not always thrilled about the stickers, and with some justification. After all, even the most careful and skilled driver occasionally makes mistakes; and sometimes what looks like careless or aggressive behavior may be a necessary response to some surprise road hazard.
From a Jewish point of view, the first concern here is for the prohibition of lashon hara, unjustified slander. Jewish law is very strict about any kind of derogatory speech. The Torah commands us, "Don't go about as a tale-bearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16). A tale-bearer is not necessarily bearing scandal; the prohibition also includes idle gossip or any other speech which would harm or offend the subject.
However, the continuation of this very same verse adds: "Don't stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." From this we learn that each person should work actively to keep others from harm. Sometimes this would obligate us to transmit negative information on someone.
Over the generations the rabbis provided guidelines on creating the proper balance between the two halves of this verse. Rav Yisrael Meir HaKohen in his classic book Chafetz Chaim summarizes that it is permissible to report wrongdoing when the report is accurate, necessary to attain a constructive objective, doesn't cause unjustified harm to the subject, and is motivated by constructive objectives, not vindictive ones. These conditions apply to the onlooker who is considering reporting. When reporting is permitted, it is desirable as a fulfillment of the commandment "Don't stand idly by the blood of your brother."
There are also obligations which apply to the fleet operator. Just as it is forbidden to speak lashon hara (slander), it is forbidden to accept it. This is learned from another verse: "Don't bear a false report" (Exodus 23:1). Such a report is borne both by the one who tells and the one who believes. So the driver must be allowed to give his or her own account of any reported incident. It would be desirable if we could ignore anonymous reports, which have the potential to be malicious, but this is probably not practical. At the very least, anonymous reports should be given less credence than those coming from reporters who identify themselves.
And since the original report is permitted only if it will not lead to undeserved damage to the subject, it follows that any disciplinary steps should be commensurate, not excessive. So even when improper driving is observed, the appropriate response in most cases should be instruction and training, not summary dismissal.
This is not only a consequence of the slander prohibition, but also a separate obligation from the laws of employment. Jewish law states that when an employee misbehaves, it is generally obligatory to give him warning and a second chance before firing him. The exception would be if his behavior is truly irresponsible, for example reckless driving. (1)
Interestingly, these very ethical considerations have proven themselves also to be critical effectiveness conditions. A recent paper by Ronald Knipling and others, studying the "How's my driving?" program states: "These studies have shown significant reductions in vehicle crashes, insurance premiums, and DOT reportable crashes when fleets used safety placards with an effective feedback loop, that is, feedback combined with training and instruction." (Emphasis is mine – AM.)
The driver is not the only person in the loop. The person reporting the hazard also needs to be respected. His or her help is totally voluntary, and must be duly acknowledged. If the person answering the toll-free number is rude then the program will probably not be very effective. It goes without saying that the reporter's identity should never be revealed to the driver, as this would be an invasion of privacy and a deterrent to honest reporting.
Above all, fleet operators owe it to reporters to actually make effective use of the information they obtain. Those who report are volunteering time and expense because they believe they are making a contribution to safe highways; their expectations deserve to be fulfilled completely.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8.
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