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NJ Could Ban Drivers From Eating, Drinking Behind the Wheel

Studies show that handling food while driving can cause an attention overload and can double the risk of an accident.
Distracted Drivers
Drivers of vehicles are distracted -- including talking on the phone, eating, drinking and applying makeup in Long Beach, California.Bob Riha Jr / Getty Images file

The drive-in at your local McDonald’s could rank up there with the neighborhood bar when it comes to sending dangerous drivers back out on the road, at least according to a trio of New Jersey lawmakers, and they want to do something about it.

They’re asking colleagues to pass a new bill that would, among other things, bar motorists from sipping on a cup of coffee or nibbling on a burger while behind the wheel. A first-time offense can carry up to $400 in fines, something that jumps to as much as $800 for a third offense — plus a 90-day license suspension and points.

It’s not that NJ Assemblyman John Wisniewski equates sipping a caffeinated latte with guzzling alcohol. He and Assembly co-sponsors Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Patrick Diegnan are trying to target the broader issue of distracted driving — an issue federal regulators say contributes to at least 11 percent of all fatal crashes in the U.S.

The proposed measure would ban “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."

Wisniewski said he’s particularly worried about things like texting, as well as drivers who try to open up maps or even read newspapers while behind the wheel. But eating and drinking can be equal distractions, some safety experts contend, and would be covered by the bill.

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A study by Britain’s Brunel University found that handling food can cause an attention overload and can double the risk of an accident. The U.K.’s police have for years been pulling over and ticketing motorists for sipping on beverages or wolfing down food. But that hasn’t stopped the public’s habit of using their vehicles as mobile restaurants, with more than half of drivers acknowledging that behavior.

And, according to British experts, motorists caught there munching an egg-and-cheese burrito can be hit with an insurance premium increase of up to 40 percent.

The issue of distracted driving, in general, has become more of a safety concern in recent years as smartphones have become ubiquitous. Federal regulators have called for a broad crackdown, especially in light of the fact that the number of deaths on U.S. highways jumped by about 8 percent last year, to around 35,000, reversing a decade-long decline in fatalities.

In New Jersey, preliminary figures show 216 people died in crashes during the first half of 2016, according to state police data: A 9.6 percent increase year on year.

“The issue is that we need to try, in every way, to discourage distracted driving. It’s dangerous,” Wisniewski told the Star-Ledger newspaper.

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While the lawmakers says this bill is meant to educate, rather than punish drivers, not everyone is pleased by the proposal.

"This proposed distracted driving law is not needed, since three statutes can be used when a distraction causes unsafe actions, like swerving or crossing a line," said Steve Carrellas, policy and government affairs director for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, told "There is unsafe driving, careless driving, and reckless driving."

Backers of the Wisniewski bill counter that only texting and using a handheld cellphone while driving are specifically banned under existing laws. But even those who want a crackdown on distracted driving, such as the AAA, question whether the bill would improve enforcement of measures already on the books.

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