Don’t Fall Asleep at the Wheel!

774. Don’t Fall Asleep at the Wheel!

A driver who falls asleep at the wheel (chas v’shalom) is responsible for injuries caused to passengers, pedestrians and other drivers, as well as for damage to the car being driven, to other cars, and for all collateral damage. There is a rule: “Adam mu’ad l’olam bein shogeg bein meizid, bein eir bein yashein” (a person is always as if forewarned [i.e., responsible]) regardless of whether [he inflicts damage] unknowingly or willfully; whether he is awake or asleep).

How can a person be held responsible for something that occurs when they are incognizant?

There is much discussion among poskim about responsibility in the case of hezek (damage) caused b’ones (unwillingly). Tosfos (12th to 15th century Talmudic commentaries) make a distinction for a hezek that occurs due to ones gamur (complete accident). According to Tosfos, an adam hamazik (person who causes damage) is liable only for an ones which is karov l’pshiah (nearing negligence). To further distinguish between different types of ones, Tosfos refers to them as ones k’ein gnaivah (accident which is similar to theft) versus ones k’ain aveidah (accident similar to disappearance). Both theft and disappearance are not considered negligence (see also Halachah # 398) and both occur unwittingly. But when it comes to degree of responsibility, aveidah is clearly closer to p’shiah than geneivah, which is closer to ones. Therefore—according to Tosfos—there is no liability in cases that are similar to geneivah or any other ones gamur. Other Rishonim (early authorities) disagree with Tosfos, and hold a person liable regardless of the level of control they had at the time.

Practically speaking, we are lenient with regard to hezek in cases of ones gamur (ruling as Tosefos), but uphold accountability for any damage resulting from ones karov l’pshiah. Therefore, if a person falls asleep and causes harm to others they are always held responsible. However, if another person influences the type or amount of damage that occurs while a person is asleep—such as by lying down next to them (and therefore putting themselves in harm’s way) or putting fragile items in their way (so they break the objects while asleep)—the slumberer is not responsible, since these particular circumstances are ones gamur.

None of this applies to falling asleep at the wheel. It is a person’s responsibility to remain awake while operating a vehicle and necessary precaution must be taken to remain alert. Ones sheinah (unwittingly [causing damage] while asleep) isn't an excuse when driving even though the driver did not intend to doze off—regardless of whether we accept the position of Tosfos or other Rishonim. Someone who is driving long distances, particularly at night, should take necessary safety measures, and is advised to take a break every hour in order to remain fully alert throughout the road trip.

Practical Halacha: One minute a day. By Horav Yosef Yeshaya Braun, shlita, Mara D'asra and member of the Badatz of Crown Heights.