Anonymous writes: I have an old college friend in San Francisco whom I visit regularly. Lately, she is constantly texting as we drive around the Bay Area. When I told her it was dangerous, she replied that she texts safely and the law against it is intended only for those that drive dangerously.
She said, “California is turning into a nanny state. The next thing you know, there will be a law about turning on the radio.”
She is wrong about the law against texting while driving; it applies to all drivers. I said that I wouldn’t drive with her anymore unless she stopped texting. She got angry and said, “You drive the way you want and I’ll drive the way I want.”
Then she told me that in a few weeks she would be driving to Santa Barbara to pick up mutual friends and drive them to Los Angeles. I don’t know what to do. I feel as if I have a duty to alert these friends about her driving and texting. They can make their own choice about driving with her, but they need to know about her dangerous driving habits. I’m worried if my friend finds out that I told the others, it might put our friendship at risk.
What’s my ethical responsibility?
Street Ethics responds: It’s not uncommon for ethical dilemmas to be intertwined with friendship and family concerns.
Often, a disagreement about ethics is merely theoretical, with all sides having some merit but no action required of anyone. A good example is an annual family argument at Thanksgiving dinner over such issues as whether marijuana should be legalized. Grandpa may think it should be, but he’s not the governor.
In the case you present, your ethical responsibility is clear and requires action, now. While you have no legal duty to report your friend’s driving and texting to anyone, you do have ethical obligation that is as important, if not greater than, a legal one.
Your friend’s attitude is not only contemptuous of the law. She is being cavalier about her safety, the safety of your mutual friends, and the public. She is putting your relationship at risk, not you.
To protect your friends, including your old friend from San Francisco, you should confront her again about the seriousness of the problem. Explain to her that if she owned a large piece of property, not open to the public, and wanted to drive while texting, well, happy trails to her. But once she enters the public streets and highways, she has a moral responsibility to the countless unknown people who share the roads with her.
Inform her that you plan to warn your mutual friends that you think her driving will put them in danger. You may want to share with her at least one of the studies that conclude that texting while driving makes it at least 20 times more likely that a driver will have an accident. If the law and the overwhelming statistics on this issue don’t change her behavior, maybe the risk of losing your friendship will.
I agree old friends are important. But sometimes a friendship may be better lost if the price of maintaining it causes you to seriously compromise your own ethics.
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Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding Executive Director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics.