Ethical Consideration of Distracted Driving and Cyclist Safety

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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.

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4 Responses to Ethical Consideration of Distracted Driving and Cyclist Safety

  1. Eoin says:

    Terrific post, as usual. Your Kantian approach reminds be a bit of that taken by Missouri State University journalism professor and cyclist Andy Cline, particularly this post from a year ago:

    I think the problem of faulty moral reasoning imperiling vulnerable road users extends beyond the issue of distracted driving. Think of how many times you’ve seen discussions about accommodating bikes on our roads get bogged down in a utilitarian “cost/benefit analysis,” in which there’s simply no space for the concept of people’s rights.

    What’s more, these types of analyses tend to “balance” the convenience of drivers with the safety of cyclists, which isn’t really any kind of balance at all.

    • Undoubtedly, the problem of faulty moral reasoning imperiling vulnerable road users extends beyond the issue of distracted driving. And your observation about how the convenience of drivers is weighed against the safety of cyclists shows more evidence of a lack of ethical consideration when dealing with road use issues.

      I appreciate your mentioning Andy Cline’s post — which I hadn’t read. It’s great to see someone quoting Kant (or any other philosopher for that matter). Even so, there are differences between what Andy and I are referring to when I emphasize the ethical considerations of distracted driving.

      Although we all know what Andy is talking about in his post, it isn’t accurate (in Kantian terms) to compare “objects” with “people,” as the basis for a driver’s actions, because it is not the result of an action that matters to Kant, it is the motive. So, the real question regarding the morality of one’s actions is one of “intent.” From a legal standpoint, drivers are aware of the difference in consequences between hitting an “object” and a “person.” This governs their actions and negates Andy’s assertion about drivers regarding all other road users as “objects to be gotten around.”

      An “object” (physical object, in the sense that Andy is using it) is an inanimate thing. And although it can be said that humans have been “objectified,” this refers to a loss of humanity, not becoming inanimate. To Kant, it is not a matter of inanimate versus animate things, but the belief that humans hold a special place in the world, which is why we — as rational beings — are morally obligated to act in certain ways towards them.

      Further (as I pointed out in my post), there are relative degrees of road user vulnerability. In fact, one could argue that the majority of road users are “objects” due to their encasement in cars (which are literally objects). Drivers act carelessly towards cars because it is not a given that crashing into a car will result in injury or death to its occupants.

      Distracted driving is different with respect to intent. Distracted driving consists of having one’s attention diverted from driving. Unlike careless or aggressive driving, which are conscious acts, any injury or death resulting from distracted driving is an unintended consequence of an act which is unrelated to driving itself. This is where the distinction lies. Distraction, an unintentional action, is currently being used as an excuse to free drivers from moral intent. Conversely, injuries resulting from careless or aggressive driving fit the definition of “negligence,” which implies a willful act.

      On the subject of sharing the road, Andy described how ethical road users shouldn’t use someone as a means to their ends. But, he didn’t mention the role of ethics in determining “fault” in the case of death. This is the point where ethics meets law. And, that meeting point is, in large measure, what I was aiming to address in this post.

      • Eoin says:

        Have you ever read Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic”? I would strongly recommend it if you haven’t. He gets into a lot of the psychology of driving, as well as the engineering of road infrastructure.

        One of his main points is that traditional efforts to improve road safety – the double yellow lines that tell you how close to oncoming traffic you can be, the green light that instructs you to speed through the intersection, the white dashes on the highway (which are actually 10 feet long with 30 feet between them) that make it seem as though you’re going way slower than you actually are – actually have the opposite effect. They lull drivers into a sense of false security.

        It happens to every driver. Even though I make it a point not to talk on my phone while driving (much less send texts or surf the Web) I still end up having my mind continually pulled from the task of operating a two-ton hunk of steel at speeds that exceed my evolutionary programming. On Thanksgiving on the Pike, I came rather close to rear-ending the car in front of me because I was checking out a Lamborghini passing me on the left.

        But yeah, it would have been nobody’s fault but my own.

        • I’ve heard of Vanderbilt’s book, but I’ve never read it (I’ll pick up a copy). A quick search of the title brought up a New York Times review of it, which said the following:

          “Driving rarely commands 100 percent of our attention, and so we feel comfortable multitasking: talking on the phone, unfolding a map, taking in the Barca-Lounger on the road’s shoulder. Vanderbilt cites a statistic that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve drivers not paying attention for up to three seconds.”

          Whether it’s the review’s wording or how Vanderbilt expressed this fact, the idea of “driving rarely commanding 100 percent of our attention” is frightening. The description above sounds more like sightseeing than driving. I don’t drive this way; neither should others. Despite spending more time cycling and walking than driving, I’m a good and safe driver. I attribute this to my training. I was taught to always scan the road around me and anticipate the behavior of others. As a result, I always pay attention to the road while I’m driving.

          To foster this behavior, my Driver’s Ed program used a road simulator where student drivers could practice dealing with real-world driving scenarios including unexpected lane changes by others, an animal crossing the street, a pedestrian running out from between two cars, or a ball coming out of nowhere and rolling in front of your car – obviously a kid would not be far behind. These scenes were placed on quiet (“safe”) roads of the type Vanderbilt is describing — the ones where you wouldn’t expect to get into an accident. If the student driver didn’t brake in time, the simulator showed a gruesome ending. The point of the training was to teach drivers not to get lulled into a false sense of security. Judging by Vanderbilt’s statistics, most drivers don’t receive such training (or they’ve forgotten it).

          This is not to say that I’m infallible (or that I defy human nature), but if I do get into an accident, it will be the result of an unavoidable situation, rather than my own inattentiveness. Now, if we could just get everyone to drive this way, we’d be all set.

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