Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Is drinking coffee considered distracted driving?

We see it all the time, and we are all guilty of it to some degree. Some offenders are more egregious than others. There are amateurs and there are “pros.”

I’m talking about distracted driving.

Distracted driving can range from such objectively dangerous activities as playing Pokémon GO to seemingly mundane actions like changing the radio station. Problems with distracted driving have become so bad that the U.S. government has an entire website dedicated to the issue,

Recently, a New Jersey bill sponsored by Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti proposes amendments to an already existing distracted driving law. As it stands, the law prohibits drivers from using a “wireless telephone or electronic communication device” while operating a moving vehicle. Bill A1908 wants to add this part:
“An operator of a moving motor vehicle shall not engage in 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.”
At face value, this means that any action other than having your hands at 10 and 2 when not shifting gears can be considered distracted driving and get you pulled over and fined. And that’s exactly how mainstream media interpreted it.

“Bill would ban motorists from drinking coffee and driving,” the USA Today headline reads.

“NJ Could Ban Drivers From Eating, Drinking Behind the Wheel,” NBC News reported.

Even though the letter of the law essentially supports those headlines, the spirit of the law is much different. Wisniewski even took to social media to calm everyone down: 

Although mainstream media sensationalized the proposed bill, it does highlight a narrative regarding distracted driving. More specifically, almost anything can be considered a distraction and cause a motorist to crash his or her vehicle. Trying to stop all instances of distracted driving is similar to the war on drugs: You’re never going to win.

Another thing to consider is how much power this proposed bill gives law enforcement. According to News 12 New Jersey, “Wisniewski says he cannot imagine that a police officer would pull anyone over for drinking coffee…” But that doesn’t mean they can’t.

I believe Wisniewski when he says that law enforcement will not pull over “anyone” for eating or drinking (non-alcoholic beverages, of course) while driving. However, if an officer wants to profile somebody and is looking for a reason to pull him or her over, all that officer needs to do is wait for the driver to reach for … well … anything.

Wisniewski also pointed out the amendment was written in a way that would prevent lawmakers from proposing a new piece of legislation every time a new piece of technology became available. Currently, the law prohibits a “wireless telephone or electronic communication device.” The amendment is ambiguous enough to include any gadget that may distract drivers in the future.

Here’s the problem with that: Ambiguity causes more problems than it solves. When laws attempt to be all-encompassing, they leave room for misinterpretation of the intent of the law. In the court of law, intent rarely matters. It’s all about what a lawyer can argue that the written word literally says. In this case, despite what Wisniewski intended, the law literally says drinking coffee while driving can be a punishable offense.

Motorists of all types are going to drive while distracted until we no longer have to drive anymore, and if Tesla has anything to do with it, that day will come soon. Until then, we can only focus on the most dangerous factors and do our part to be safe. In other words, don’t be this person: