Thou Shalt Drive Safely and Soberly

By Warren Brown
Sunday, June 24, 2007

PORTLAND, Ore. The temptation is to make light of Pope Benedict XVI's "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road," which already have been called the "Ten Commandments of Driving" by the media and comedians worldwide.

When the Vatican's office for migrants and itinerants issued the guidelines last week, I whooped. I scoured the late-night talk shows hoping to hear some pundit say that he or she would post the rules on Paris Hilton's jail cell in California, where she is serving a sentence for violating her probation for reckless driving.

But news of the possibly alcohol-related deaths of four bright, promising young women in Northern Virginia sobered me. And here in Portland, Ore., where I am attending yet another North American introduction of a shiny new car, reports of a friend's recent loss of a family member under similar circumstances gave me pause.

Alcohol-impaired driving, which killed 16,972 people in the United States in 2005, the year of the latest complete road-fatality statistics, is no laughing matter. Worldwide, nearly 1.2 million people died in crashes involving alcohol or drug-influenced driving in 2005.

Personally, I am a Roman Catholic who disagrees with the Vatican on a number of issues. Argument and disagreement are inherent in my genetic code. I am a natural contrarian. But on this issue, I must give Pope Benedict his due. He is right. We've got to take a more humane, more loving approach to driving. We've got to stop using cars to kill one another on the road.

Appropriately, then, the pope's first rule of the road is familiar to anyone, including agnostics and atheists, who have read the Ten Commandments. It says, "You shall not kill."

That means you should not engage in behavior that has been shown to lead to road slaughter. To wit: You should not drink and drive, or take judgment-impairing drugs and drive. It calls upon you to demonstrate care and concern for your life and the lives of others by drinking responsibly -- meaning that if you booze, you lose the right to your car's ignition key. You must turn it over to a sober driver.

The pope's second rule of the road speaks even more clearly to the point. The Catholic church is big on the concepts of communion and fellowship. And in Rule 2, the pope speaks of the road and the vehicles that use it as "a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm."

I have long believed the same thing, which is why I've always loved cars and driving. I seldom look at cars or trucks as the sum of their various components, technologies, performance capabilities. I see them as communications devices bringing people to or from something for some purpose important to them. Cars, in that context, are meant to serve, not to dominate, intimidate or otherwise ruin.

Rules 3 and 4 speak to something often discussed in this space, which is the need for more courtesy on the road. In his presentation, the pope also implies the need for forgiveness to "help you deal with unforeseen events" on the road, such as another driver rudely cutting you off or tailgating you unmercifully.

The forgiveness thing is something that I've been trying and often failing to achieve. The blood boils. The curses flow when some driver takes a left turn from a right lane, cutting me off, and putting me and whoever is with me in harm's way. It takes every ounce of remaining willpower to stop me from raising a hand in Ignoble Digital Salute.

Clearly, I need to listen to the pope's words on this one. An irrational response to an irrational offense simply compounds the offense, he says. It could lead to "mortal harm" versus the intended use of cars and roadways for "communion." Better to forgive, cool off, forget and drive on. All of us need to keep that in mind.

Here's hoping that the papal road rules, which also speak to the training of young drivers, are not given short shrift simply because they come from the pope, or because they are seen as Roman Catholic and strictly denominational. They are much broader, more meaningful than that.

Perhaps the Vatican's office for migrants and itinerants should publish and distribute them worldwide in pamphlet form. I'd like a copy. I'd read it, particularly the section on forgiveness, before every road trip.

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