He Belts Up – Or You Pay Up!

Question

Nechemiah sat next to the taxi driver. He was nearing his destination when the
taxi was stopped by the police. The police officer took one look at the unbelted
Nechemiah – and slapped a hefty fine on the taxi driver, since he had not ensured
that his front passenger was wearing the required seat belt. The taxi driver now
demands that Nechemiah pays the fine, since it was his negligence in failing to
wear the belt which prompted the charge. Is Nechemiah halachically obligated
to pay?

Answer

We first have to clarify why the driver of a car is fined if his front seat passenger
fails to wear a seat belt. Surely the passenger is the real offender, since he did
not fulfill his obligation to put on his belt? The answer must be that the law wanted
the driver to take responsibility for the passenger sitting next to him. Make sure
he is wearing his seat belt. If he refuses to put on the belt, you should refuse
to continue the journey. If the driver continues the journey, despite the fact that
he has an unbelted passenger next to him, it is his driving which brings the fine
upon himself. We can therefore not call Nechemiah a “mazikā€(damager), since
it is not the failure to wear a seat belt which attracts the fine but rather
driving
a car with an unbelted front passenger. Had the car remained stationary,
there would have been nothing wrong in Nechemiah sitting in an unbelted state.

There is a major discussion amongst the Rishonim (Earlier Commentaries) as to
why the principle of dina d'malchus dina (obey the law of the land) applies.
Some hold that the ruler's ownership of the land is the reason for having to obey
his laws (Rashbo and Ran). If you disobey, he has the power to expel
you from his land. Others (Rashbam to Bava Basro 54b) give the reason
as the inhabitants' acceptance of the king's rule. According to the first (generally
accepted) reason, this principle would not apply in Eretz Yisroel, since
the land is not owned by any individual. All Jews are partners in the land. Nevertheless,
all are agreed that those laws which are enacted for the smooth running of the country
and the safety of its inhabitants are fully valid even if imposed by a civil authority
in Eretz Yisroel (Chasam Sofer, Responsa to Choshen Mishpot,
No.44). Traffic laws certainly fall into this category. Their purpose is primarily
to maintain the safety of all road users, as well as ensuring the smooth flow of
traffic. (Note that leading halachic authorities of our generation have declared
that were Beis Din to be in charge of enacting traffic laws, they would be much
stricter than they are now!) Accordingly, in our case it would be clearly unacceptable
for Nechemiah to claim that he did not wear a belt since he is not bound by civil
law.

In former times, it was common practice in many countries to impose an annual
head tax on all citizens. When the tax collector came to collect the annual payment
from a citizen but failed to locate him, he extracted the amount from this person's
neighbour or any other convenient victim. Does the real debtor have to compensate
his neighbour for his loss? The Shulchan Oruch (Choshen Mishpot 388:6)
rules that if the law of the land states that tax collectors have the right to collect
one man's tax debt from another, the real debtor must repay him the sum. Could it
thus be argued that the taxi driver was really paying Nechemiah's fine and therefore
Nechemiah must reimburse him? The Emek Hamishpot (2:42) rejects the comparison.
Each individual has to pay the head tax. Where the tax collector is empowered to
collect the money from someone other than the real debtor, the real debtor must
refund the payment. Here, the fine is imposed directly on the driver, albeit on
account of the passenger's behaviour. No halachic responsibility rests on
the passenger.