Soon, the drive-through at Starbucks could be aiding and abetting you when it comes to breaking a new proposed distracted driving law in New Jersey, one that makes eating or drinking while driving illegal. This may sound outlandish and but it could very well become the law of the land in the Garden State. The law itself uses very broad language to put a stop to “any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle on a public road or highway.”
It means picking up McDonald’s and picking through your fries a bit on the way home would be illegal. Drinking your soda would be illegal. Paying too much attention to the radio dial would be illegal. Conversations with a passenger could be considered illegal if it distracts you. The problem is the law is so general in its writing that everything would be illegal. Everything equals distracted driving.
While we can admire some of the good intentions of this law, the wanting to protect people, it’s still overreaching. Eating and drinking while driving has been part of the culture for decades. You will not simply regulate this behavior out of existence. Obviously there is a difference between sipping a soda while driving and having the burger in one hand, the fries in the other and using the soda between your knees to steer while your focus changes from entrée to entrée. There are already reckless driving laws on the books to regulate this type of behavior because said behavior will cause obvious instances of reckless driving regardless.
The fines associated with this distracted driving law raise a red flag as well. A first offense is $400, with subsequent offenses ranging from $600-$800.00 plus points on your license and even a 90 day suspension. While I do think if you’re a serial offender, you deserve whatever happens to you, this does sort of ring of lawmakers finding revenue in bad behavior. To put this in perspective, the maximum fine for first time reckless driving charge in New Jersey is $200.00 [N.J.S.A. 39:4-96]. You could swerve all over the road and as long as you weren’t holding a cup of Starbucks, your fine would be half [reckless driving can also carry jail time, so don’t test this theory out]. Add to the fact that bad behavior is poorly defined and this law gives carte blanche authority to write tickets all day. Driving with an open container would suddenly apply to Dr. Pepper.
Ultimately, I would not support this legislation as is and hope New Jersey lawmakers do not, at least not in its current form. A measure of common sense needs to be added and the benefit of the doubt should to be given to drivers in terms of reasonable expectations. The dangers that exist from distracted driving are very real but something that can be eliminated by making people smarter drivers. Driver Education