Just drive: New Jersey may outlaw drinking coffee, applying makeup while driving

Cars travel on the New Jersey turnpike near Elizabeth, New Jersey. © Mike Segar
Seeking to end “distracted driving,” which is the top cause of fatal vehicle crashes in New Jersey, lawmakers have drawn up a bill that has such wide latitude it would prohibit everything but driving, even a cup of joe.

"The issue is that we need to try, in every way, to discourage distracted driving, it's dangerous," New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D, Middlesex) told NJ.com. "Education and enforcement can change the attitudes of people."

Under the bill, which would amend the state’s existing cell phone law, drivers would face fines and possibly suspended licenses for eating, drinking, grooming, reading or use electronic devices behind the wheel.

Violators could face fines from $200 to $400 for a first offense and $400 to $600 for a second offence, with a third offence attracting fines from $600 to $800, and a possible 90-day license suspension.

Specifically, under the bill drivers would be prohibited from “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.”

Drivers have been warned before about talking on their cell phones, applying makeup or tending to children or pets, but for New Jersey residents it was the prospect of outlawing their coffee drinking that had them in a tail spin.

A former vehicular homicide investigator, Arnold Anderson, told NJ.com it is unlikely that police officers would issue a summons for a driver drinking coffee because they are also drinking coffee behind the wheel, but that’s missing the “spirit” of the law

“You’ve get to get people out of the mindset of multitasking,” said Anderson, who is now the Essex County Community Traffic Safety program coordinator. “You can’t multitask. We are so far away from the mindset of … just drive.”

Assemblyman Wisniewski said there are far more serious concerns than drinking coffee such as drivers watching a movie on an iPad or reading a newspaper draped over the steering wheel, all of which he had witnessed on the New Jersey Turnpike. But the bill does give police authority to write tickets for drinking coffee because it doesn’t list which distractions are covered, and which are not.

Supporters of the bill said distracted driving has played a role in 800,000 accidents in the Garden State between 2010 and 2014, according to state police statistics.