March 30, 2020

For God’s Sake (and Mine), Signal!

It’s one of the most startling and frightening things than can happen. You’re driving in the neighborhood, you stop at a stop sign, and then begin a left turn. To your horror, you suddenly see a pedestrian or jogger entering the crosswalk. Thank God, you hit the brakes in time and tragedy is averted. After you calm down, you wonder how such a close call could have happened. Perhaps the pedestrian was distracted by his or her phone. Or perhaps it was something else. 

Perhaps you forgot to signal your intention to turn.

Everyone who drives, walks or bikes knows that signaling to turn is a lost art.  As a person who walks to work, I’ve been in those crosswalks often as my friends and neighbors were turning left because I thought that they intended to continue straight. Because there was no signal to the contrary. 

Here’s another common scenario. I’m riding a bike on your right. You don’t see me, but I’m there. We both stop at the stop sign, and then both start to move again. You turn right, forcing me to slam on my brakes, hoping I don’t fly over the handlebars. I didn’t know you were turning because you didn’t signal. 

On numerous occasions, I’ve narrowly escaped biking into your car as you were pulling away from the curb without signaling. And on many other occasions, I performed a quick avoidance maneuver after we had stopped at stop signs while traveling in opposite directions, and you suddenly turned left into the intersection … without signaling.

I am not angry. I just don’t want you to hit anyone. And all I’m asking is that we all do that simple thing that, if we had forgotten to do it on our driving test, we would have failed automatically. For good reason. 

I don’t think that this plea really requires the citation of a talmudic source, but I’m a rabbi, so here goes. Mishnah Bava Kamma 3:5 describes the following situation. You’re walking in the public domain carrying a wooden beam over your shoulder. I’m walking behind you carrying an earthenware barrel in front of me. If my barrel strikes your beam and breaks, you are not liable for the resultant damages, because you have every right to be carrying your beam in the public domain, and it’s my responsibility — as the person in the rear — to maintain a safe distance from you. But what if you rest for a moment and you stop walking, and at that point my barrel strikes your beam and breaks? The Mishnah’s answer is, “It depends.” If you’d turned back and said, “I’m stopping for a second,” then you’re exempt from liability. You signaled what you were about to do, and thus fulfilled your ethical responsibility toward me. But if you stopped without warning me, so that I had no idea of your intent, then you are liable for the resulting accident. The accident is your fault, as you were the one who did something that was unexpected. 

I don’t think that this plea really requires the citation of a talmudic source, but I’m a rabbi, so here goes.

The Mishnah’s case is one in which the damage is purely financial. When we’re driving, the potential damage is, of course, far more tragic than that. If I told you that if you were to signal consistently for the next 25 years, you would avoid hitting one pedestrian, one biker or one stroller, would you do it?

And I don’t mean to exempt cyclists. We should signal, too. Drivers need to know what to expect as well. 

My friends and neighbors behind the wheel: I know it sounds platitudinal to cite the mitzvah to love one another as we love ourselves, and to remind us that Rabbi Akiva declared this to be the Torah’s central mitzvah. But as platitudinal as it may sound, it truly pertains here. The opportunity and obligation to fulfill this mitzvah present themselves each time we approach a corner. 

For God’s sake, for one another’s sake, for our own sake, let’s signal.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David–Judea Congregation.