Distracted driving raises ethical questions. If a driver is on an isolated road, distracted driving is only a danger to himself. But, when sharing the road with drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, distracted driving’s consequences affect the well-being of other members of society. Since any individual can choose to harm him or herself, without consequence to others, the result of distracted driving in isolation is an ethical choice. Only when driving in a collective manner, with multiple road users on the road, is distracted driving unethical. So, it is in the latter case that ethical considerations, as a societal problem, come into effect.
When we consider the ramifications of distracted driving, we must ask about the rights of all those affected. On a typical road, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have an equal right to travel in safety. The promotion of safety requires cooperation on the part of all road users.
A safe road is one where everyone’s moves are carefully orchestrated to avoid one user’s interference with another. Rules are in place to allow road users to anticipate the actions of others. Following those rules ensures that no one road user is placed in inequitable danger.
To follow the rules, road users must pay close attention to the road, the actions of other road users, and proper operation of their vehicles. Failure on any of these scores will increase the odds of injury.
Vulnerability is another issue which must be considered. Operators of motor vehicles have the greatest degree of protection by being covered, completely, in a jacket of steel. Cyclists and pedestrians, who have no barrier to protect their bodies, are relatively exposed and considerably more vulnerable to injury or death.
While all road users are obligated to use due care when sharing the road, the relative and unequal nature of vulnerability places a higher share of responsibility on drivers, who are the least likely to sustain injury when interacting with cyclists and pedestrians. To avoid injury to others, drivers must focus on their surroundings at all times. To do otherwise is unethical since it shows gross disregard for the welfare of others. Distracted driving is the epitome of unethical behavior because, with each instance of this action, the probability of injuring another road user increases.
Whenever there is an encounter between a car and a bicycle, resulting in injury, traffic laws are taken into consideration. Since police are usually not present when such incidents occur, drivers are not cited for traffic law violations related to the accident. Eyewitness accounts may be taken into consideration when reconstructing the accident scene, but this is generally used to determine fault — which may, on occasion, result in the driver facing charges.
What’s missing from car versus bicycle accident reconstruction is ethical considerations. The law looks at concepts such as negligence and due care. Both determine whether the perpetrator acted in accordance with what any reasonable person would do in the same circumstances. But neither weighs the question of ethics, the practice of what is right or wrong within the context of a given society.
Most civilized societies regard injury to others as wrong in all cases other than self-defense. It is only when one’s own life is in danger that the taking of another life is treated as a viable and defensible option. On the road, no such option exists. There is no case where sacrificing the life or well-being of another is tolerable or morally acceptable. Why, then, is this never taken into consideration when determining accountability for the death of a cyclist?
The death of a cyclist is most often treated as an unavoidable accident. The behavior of the driver, prior to the lethal act, is only considered if it falls within the definition of “reckless.” If the conduct can be construed as the least bit reasonable, in terms of ordinary operation of a motor vehicle, then the driver is let off with a slap on the wrist and a punishment consisting only of self-recrimination.
On a daily basis, drivers engage in distracting behavior ranging from cell phone use to eating to operating consumer electronics such as a GPS or MP3 player. Each of these activities requires the driver to take his or her eyes off of the road. Such behavior is analogous to driving blind, even though we, as a society, prohibit the operation of a motor vehicle to people whose vision falls below a certain threshold. If we know that driving blind is hazardous, why do we tolerate it on a regular basis — and why isn’t it weighed in the favor of an injured party when an accident occurs? It’s as if we accept aberrant behavior as normal when it’s engaged in for the convenience of the actor of the action.
At some point, as collective members of a society, we must ask ourselves whether putting the convenience of a driver ahead of the life of a cyclist is an ethical thing to do. Most moral philosophers would say ‘no’ because the value of a human life is generally considered to be greater than the value of an individual’s comfort. In the words of the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant:
“Always act to treat humanity, whether in yourself or in others, as an end in itself, never merely as a means.”
In other words, Kant is saying that a rational being should not be used as a means to another person’s happiness; by using someone as a means to our ends, we have removed that person’s autonomy.
To bring equity and justice to the roads, cyclists must find a way to introduce ethics into the discussions surrounding the death of a cyclist by vehicular causes. It is a driver’s duty to protect the lives of passengers and passersby. And that duty can only be fulfilled by ending the practice of distracted driving.
Distracted driving must, by definition, be included in the category of recklessness, as it constitutes a reckless disregard for life and limb. Cyclists’ lives should not be snuffed out by modern conveniences or self-serving behavior. No life should be subjected to the whims of others. And justice should be about equal rights, equal value, and the preservation of human life.