How Ethical Is Your Driving?

Public safety campaigns like these from the UK drilled into our heads that drunk driving is immoral. But ethical driving involves much more than staying sober. Image via BBC
Public safety campaigns like these from the UK drilled into our heads that drunk driving is immoral. But ethical driving involves much more than staying sober. Image via BBC

Americans 16 and older spend almost an hour a day on average behind the steering wheel, according to AAA — more time than they spend socializing with other people [PDF]. That works out to 290 hours a year, or a little more than seven 40-hour work weeks.

Perhaps because driving is so routine here, we tend not to give it much thought. For most Americans, driving is an unremarkable activity. It’s easy to turn the ignition and let our mental autopilot take over.

But we’re still making weighty decisions behind the wheel — we’re just not very aware of them. Our driving behavior can be a matter of life or death for ourselves, our loved ones, and total strangers. Around 40,000 Americans were killed on the roads last year, and millions more were injured.

Serious crashes aren’t so frequent that people have to confront death and injury on a daily basis. And that can lull us into overlooking the potential for severe consequences when making decisions that feel mundane. Decisions like whether to hit the gas or the brake when approaching a yellow light. Or whether to reach for your cell phone on the passenger seat while you’re cruising down a familiar street. Or whether to do a shoulder check for pedestrians and cyclists before making a turn.

These are, at heart, moral decisions.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, participants are asked to take a “moral inventory” of their day. Most of us who drive don’t spend much time weighing the ethics of our behavior as motorists, but we probably should. Otherwise, by the time the ethical implications of our behavior are clear, it’s probably going to be too late.

I think about these issues more now that I have two young children, two-year-old Kevin and two-month-old Norah. Kevin attends daycare half a mile from my house and I make the trip on foot with both of them every weekday.

Nothing alerts you to the extent of driver inattention, carelessness, and aggression quite like walking with little kids. I have learned, for example, that drivers aren’t necessarily more cautious around people who are visibly pregnant or have a baby in a stroller. But some do seem to at least slow down when they see you crossing the street with an unrestrained toddler.

I think I’ve also become a more considerate driver. It’s not enough to merely take care not to hit pedestrians (which is still a higher bar than a lot of drivers meet). I try to drive in a way that puts people outside the car at ease and won’t register as a potential risk to them.

This style of driving seems to stand out on the roads, even though it costs almost nothing in terms of time.

Many people set out on a driving trip with one goal: to make it as short as possible. But the idea that we can control our travel time through our driving is mostly an illusion. Speeding, even on very long journeys, isn’t the time saver we might assume.

What we can control, to a much greater degree, is the potential for harm caused by our driving.

In his book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt writes that the act of driving distorts human behavior in a few important ways. One is that it insulates us from feedback. If you do something anti-social while driving, there is no mechanism to receive the kind of negative reinforcement you would in a face-to-face setting. You might get honked or cursed at, but soon enough you’ll be on your way.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been filled with rage or despair over something a driver did while Kevin and I were trying to cross the street we live on. The only occasions when people have ever threatened him, directly or indirectly, have involved impatient drivers.

They seem to feel justified in scaring or threatening us because we’ve delayed them for a few seconds. Or maybe they don’t even realize they’re doing it. I never really get the opportunity to communicate my displeasure, except through a rude gesture. We are somewhat powerless in the whole exchange.

That’s part of why driving is so morally weighty. It has the power to cause great harm, while also shielding people in a cloak of anonymity. This is a great temptation for some people — maybe most — whose urge is to see how much they can get away with. Resisting this urge means thinking outside yourself and applying some ethical calculus to the situation.

Popular attitudes toward what constitutes ethical driving are not static. At one time, before the rise of MADD, most people considered drinking and driving more of a faux pas than an act of blatant disregard for human life. A concerted campaign shifted public opinion and changed laws, and the share of traffic deaths caused by drunk driving has fallen over time.

Now, speed-related collisions are responsible for about as many deaths each year — 10,000 — as drunk driving. We need to change how people view what’s right and wrong when they’re behind the wheel. What would it take for people to start thinking of common behaviors that pose grave risks — like texting and driving, or speeding, or failing to pay attention to people walking and biking — in the same moral terms that they now view drunk driving?

21 thoughts on How Ethical Is Your Driving?

  1. Nice article. You hit at the root of the problem: tragedy of the commons. Individual drivers take risks that endanger the common welfare, but our legal system is unable to hold them fully accountable for the disastrous consequences that are all too common. Thus drivers are insufficiently incentivized to prioritize public safety over competing desires such as speed, distractions, and revenge on other road users.

    We need reforms strong enough to convince the common citizen that remaining 100% attentive and courteous behind the wheel is the only option in his/her self-interest.

  2. In a society where we think it’s ok to have drivers with 10 DUIs on our roads…

    …and where 15% of drivers don’t have insurance, the idea that only 40,000 Americans are murdered every year on our roads is fairly remarkable.

    Like mass school shootings and domestic violence we seemed to have developed a full immunity to the things that are most likely to kill us and the politicians and their corporate backers who depend on the sales of cars, gasoline, tires, guns, phones, and alcohol to meet their quarterly earnings targets have absolutely no incentive to work on a solution.

    And for those of us individuals who argue for a solution, or even just bring up the problem, we get the “if you hate America so much why don’t you just move to Europe” response or just a simple F off.

  3. If only speeding and distracted driving were treated with the same level of intensity as impaired driving, we might actually see a decrease in crashes that kill and seriously injure cyclists and pedestrians, along with a necessary decrease in licensed drivers, and more than likely an increase in unlicensed drivers driving much more cautiously.

  4. Great article. Thank you. Beyond actions that directly threaten human safety, it’s worth mentioning or discussing other ethically concerning actions that are a result of how (or if) we drive or motorcycle. For example, that of noise. Is it okay to rev a motor or ride a loud automobile or motorcycle through a neighborhood late at night (or at other times), awakening young children or sick residents in need of restful sleep or disturbing the peace of a school classroom, church service, an afternoon nap, etc.? There are also a myriad of ethical concerns about other environmental detriments of driving (beyond noise pollution). Is it okay to idle your motor (ie. warm the engine) feet away from a neighbor’s vegetable garden or open window? Is it okay that my car’s engine leaks oil onto the street and that particulate matter from my car’s tires and from my car’s exhaust pollutes the air locally (and settles in the ground in all the neighborhoods I drive through, possibly polluting vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and sandboxes and entering the lungs of my fellow men, women, and children)? In our society, the answer to the above questions seems to be yes – but it doesn’t seem that these questions are being asked.

  5. Those are definitely questions we should be asking. I might put it more bluntly. We as a society have already decided that it’s not OK if you crap in your neighbor’s vegetable garden or pee in their kid’s sandbox. And we’ve mostly evolved in the direction that the supposed “right” of smokers to indulge their habit is trumped by the right of those who don’t smoke not to inhale their second hand smoke (hence the prohibition of smoking in most common areas). We just need to apply this same reasoning to motor vehicles. Noise and air pollution are in my opinion even bigger problems than the physical damage caused by motor vehicles. Motor vehicles physically kill ~40K annually here in the US but likely kill 5 to 10 times that number indirectly via air and water pollution. No idea of the toll for noise pollution but doubtless the stress it causes can result in strokes or heart attacks.

    Fortunately, electric drive offers a ready solution to both the noise and pollution problems. Unfortunately, the auto industry has been dragging its feet electrifying the fleet. I would really love to see ZEV mandates in at least the larger cities, preferably nationally. Forcing the automaker’s hand seems to be the only way we’ll speed up adoption of EVs.

  6. Let’s not pretend that electric cars are perfect -or anything better than second worst. They are still incredibly energy inefficient ways to move a single human short distances -involving not just a large energy expenditure, but representing a massive embedded energy in terms of construction and infrastructure requirements. Those *do* continue to have an effect on local and regional pollution. They are a step forward, but considering them the “solution” will just cause us to repeat this conversation down the road.

  7. Not arguing any of that. Cars in general are an awful fit for cities regardless of how they’re powered. At least electric cars remove the noise and pollution problems from the immediate urban environment, which is where they cause the most problems.

    The best cities should have most people getting around by walking, biking, or public transit.

  8. In general I agree with what you’ve written, however electric automobiles do have at least some pollution concerns at the local level (ie. related to particulate matter from tire and brake wear).

  9. I look forward to a day when people won’t pick up a call in their car because they know the caller would be horrified to find out they were endangering other people.

  10. I have thought about this for several days. The conclusion I come to is that privately operated motor vehicles, no matter the energy source and no matter the behavior of the driver, cannot be ethical. There are so many externalities piled up on top of the direct effects that I don’t think any ethical person can drive a private vehicle.

  11. As cars get smarter, I would love to see vehicles automatically send all incoming calls to voicemail and respond to texts/IMs with an automated message whenever the car detects only the driver in the car. That obviously would not solve all driver distraction, but I think it might save at least some lives.

  12. The less I drive, the less I like driving. Driving is boring, but you have to remain attentive. If not, you get hurt. Almost everything that you are supposed to pay attention to, the endless cars, highways and traffic lights, is also boring. But you have to remain attentive. If not, you get hurt. If it weren’t a transportation system, driving would be considered a form of torture.

    To me, it is unethical to design a city so that most people have to drive.

  13. Speeding and distracted driving IS impaired driving.

    When you speed, your ability to respond safely to unexpected conditions is dramatically impaired.

    When you drive under the influence of phones, tablets, etc., your ability to pay due attention to your surroundings is profoundly impaired.

    This is literally true. Drivers’ response times when texting were more than twice as delayed as when they were drunk: And speeding drivers are much more likely to get in crashes, and those crashes are likely to be much more severe:

    Speeding IS impaired driving. Distracted driving IS impaired driving.

  14. plus it keeps all attention on roads and cars, cars, cars

    time a city goes with what works–steel on steel as the backbone of
    transit and individual drives–the conversation is always steered to new sorts of cars: self-driving cars, electric cars, cars on underground sledges, podcars on tracks

  15. One way to start a discussion about local passenger transportation is to consider why the personal automobile has become the dominant mode in the US. In a few places, such as Boston, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, public transit plays an important role. In most other metro areas, getting people out of their cars and into a bus or train is an uphill battle.

    One cynic observed: Of course the automobile took over–look at all the wonderful human character traits it plays to: Impatience, selfishness and laziness. Impatience is a part of American culture; I once saw a personalized license plate that read H8 2 W8 (“hate to wait”). We tend to be in a hurry, packing our days with activity. “Road rage” resulting from this frantic lifestyle makes the headlines. One of the annoyances of using public transit systems is waiting for a bus or train. The observation that railroad stations have “waiting rooms” points up this fact. Compare this with the automobile, ready to go at a moment’s notice, any time, day or night. Then there’s selfishness. From time to time various state and local agencies tout the virtues of ride-sharing and/or van-pooling. They’re wonderful ways to cut fuel consumption, air pollution and road congestion, but many drivers are reluctant to give up the control represented by the steering wheel. When you’re in your own car, you choose the route. If you want to stop at your favorite hobby store on the way home, nobody will object. If you want to listen to music, it’s your choice from the radio or the stereo player. Is your car showroom fresh or a wastebasket with wheels? It’s your choice. The laziness aspect can be seen in several ways: ever watch someone drive around the mall parking lot looking for a parking space 25 feet closer to the door? Unless one lives next door to a bus stop or railway station, there’s a walk involved in getting to public transit, while the car is right out in the driveway or garage. And once you get to the destination stop, there may be more of a hike to the actual building.

    When I wrote this essay some years ago, I forgot another aspect of “automobility”: Vanity. One luxury import “marque” (to use the car snobs’ term) even uses “You are what you drive” as a slogan. If it wasn’t for the concept of “making a statement”, most of us would be driving Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys or similar cars that get the job done without attempting to impress relatives, friends and total strangers with your “coolness”. For family excursions and errands which require more cubic feet than a sedan, there’s the SUV vs. minivan question. Consumer Reports reviewed the Honda Odyssey recently, and started off saying: Sorry, image conscious parents. Despite the popularity of SUVs, none of them can match a minivan for overall versatility and practical family transportation. I suppose to some people, “image” is important. Motor vehicle ads on TV certainly play up to this part of the human psyche, telling all the guys in the audience that the sponsor’s product will attract more “hot chicks” than you’d know what to do with, or turning your shy, nerdy son into a “big man on campus” because you drive him to school in your new luxury car.

  16. IMO, the concept of designing cities for cars is more nuanced. I remember watching a presentation on YouTube given by Brent Toderian, former Director of City Planning for Vancouver, British Columbia. He talked about the idea of prioritizing transportation modes in the following order (from highest to lowest): 1) Walking, 2) Biking, 3) Transit, 4) Freight, and 5) Personal cars. I think what Brent was saying is that cars do have a place in society (e.g. a resilient transportation system): They just shouldn’t be prioritized to the extent we have dictated they should be.

    Of course, incentives can influence mode choice. IMO, more than any other concept, the extent by Euclidean zoning exists in a community seems to dictate how well (or bad) its transportation system functions. For me, the conversation about transportation planning revolves around three concepts: 1) The degree by which physical geography influences the built environment of a place (and ultimately the long term sustainability of a place); 2) a community’s values; and 3) the heterogeneity of land uses (i.e. to what extent and/or intensity are land uses mixed).

  17. Our legal system is designed to limit accountability for negligent, dangerous, and even fatal actions that take place while driving a car. The vehicle is an entire body of law (with its own justice system) designed to reduce the penalties for these actions and to expedite the processing of the large number of offenders as quickly as possible.

  18. But you have to remain attentive. If not, you get hurt.

    Even worse, you hurt other people, who may have been fully attentive themselves (and may not even have been driving).

  19. That might be true – but one could argue that it is unethical to have to pay a mortgage too (which of course requires a job, which in turn likely requires you to drive to get there).

    Just as the world was (re) designed around the automobile, it will require a redeisgn to allow us to live without it.

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