By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
A new driver just got her license and was driving two friends to the mall. Not sure of where to turn, she seemed to be driving somewhat erratically and she was soon pulled over. The police officer ticketed her, but not for the erratic driving. Her front passenger had not been wearing a seat belt.
What is the halachah? Does the passenger have to pay the cost of the ticket or can she leave it up to the driver?
Before we address this issue, it should be known that all poskim who address the halachos of seat belts rule that wearing them is an out-and-out halachic obligation (see Sheivet HaKhasi Vol. V #241; Menuchas Emes, by Rav Mordechai Gross, Vol. IV #10; Responsa Nuta Gavriel; oral ruling of Debreciner Rav, z’l, to this author; and Nesivos Chaim, by Rav Asher Zelig Mirsky, Shaar #2). The obligation appears to be a Biblical one predicated upon the verse “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem—And you shall be very careful regarding your selves” (Devarim 4:15). It is even a mitzvah for the driver to instruct all his passengers, seated in both the front and the back, to put on their seat belts (Sheivet HaKhasi).
Statistically, if someone makes sure to always wear a seat belt, one can reduce the chance of dying by 54%. What is perhaps a shocker is that passengers that do not wear seat belts in the back seat actually cause additional risks to those who are traveling in the front. There is a 500% increase in deaths to the front passenger when the back passenger does not wear a seat belt.
Getting back to our case, Rav Mordechai Gross rules that the ticket is actually the driver’s obligation, because she should have told the passenger to put on her seat belt. Even though it is possible that the driver did so and the passenger refused, the driver always had the option of refusing to drive until the passenger put on the seat belt.
What if the passenger told the driver that she would pay for any ticket received? Believe it or not, this is a somewhat complicated question.
In secular contract law there is a concept called “consideration.” A contract is not legally valid unless both sides receive something of value, either money or the item that is being contracted to receive. Here, while there is certainly a moral obligation to fulfill one’s words, there does not seem to be a legal obligation, at first glance, on the part of the passenger to pick up the cost of the ticket.
In halachah, there is a similar notion called “asmachta lo kanya”: just saying something does not cause a legal transaction to take place (see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 207:11).
It would seem from here that, although it would be a rather shabby thing to do, the passenger could get out of her financial obligation to pay for the seat-belt ticket.
But things are not so simple. Both the Shach and Sma rule earlier (C.M. 61:12) that if a borrower told the lender orally that he would pick up all the costs that the lender incurred in loaning him money, this is not counted as “asmachta” and the borrower is fully obligated in paying what he had agreed to pay. The explanation is that this statement has become part of the monetary arrangement and is not a standalone issue.
In our case as well, it seems clear that the passenger is receiving something of value from the driver, and that is the ride itself. Thus, when the passenger stated that she would pay, or indemnify the driver of the cost of any ticket, she did receive a form of compensation: the continuous benefit of being in the car. This would be true whether the ride was free or whether the passenger paid for the ride as well.
We should also note that the response of the passenger to the driver, that she would pay for the ticket, was incorrect as well. The mitzvah of wearing a seat belt is not just limited to “V’nishmartem” (Devarim 4:15). The verse earlier (Devarim 4:9), “Rak hishamer lecha” is understood by most poskim to actually be a second mitzvah (see Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, Shaar HaTeshuvos #25). There is also a third mitzvah, “V’chai bahem—and you shall live by them” (Vayikra 18:5).
The Ben Ish Chai writes that a person should make every effort to ensure the general safety of both himself and those around him (Parashas Pinchas year cycle #2). The Turei Zahav in his commentary to Choshen Mishpat (427:10) cites a Midrash on Shir HaShirim that when one does this and protects himself from dangers and damage, not only is he protected, but he receives extraordinary credit for the mitzvah too. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.