New Jersey May Ban Coffee and Big Macs While Driving

You want a ticket with that?

byLawrence Ulrich|
New Jersey May Ban Coffee and Big Macs While Driving

Call it a legislative overreach, straight to your car’s cupholder: Drinking coffee behind the wheel could be outlawed in New Jersey under a proposed distracted-driving law. The stogie that Tony Soprano lights and puffs on the way to his suburban manse? Snuffed out for good as well.

The bill under consideration in the state legislature would prohibit “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.” 

If that sounds broader than the barn you crash into after spilling McDonald’s java in your lap, it is. Like the federal government and most states, New Jersey already takes a view of distracted driving that’s darker than French Roast. According to the state’s Office of the Attorney General, inattentive drivers were responsible for nearly 800,000 crashes in the state between 2010 and 2014, including 3,179 deaths in 2014 alone.

“Studies talk about how distracted driving is the number-one cause of accidents,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the bill’s co-sponsor, told “We ought to be able to stop it.”

Because text messaging is a trifecta of distraction, requiring visual, manual and cognitive attention, New Jersey is one of 46 states and the District of Columbia that have outlawed driver texting. The feds brandished an effective stick, threatening to withhold 25 percent of federal highway funds to states that didn't fall in line.

New Jersey, we should add, has long barred citizens from pumping their own gas. But Wisniewski said the proposed expansion of the state’s anti-text law is modeled after Maine, which banned all forms for distracted driving in 2009.  Utah is the only other state that expressly prohibits distracted driving, including explicit bans on “personal grooming and hygiene” and for reaching or searching for items within a vehicle. No mention is made of distracting oral gratification behind the wheel, even in Utah.

According to the attorney general’s office, the list of potential distractions includes eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading (including maps), watching videos, using a navigation system or adjusting a radio. In other words, better stash that Big Mac under the seat, before the fuzz checks your breath for Special Sauce.

Wisniewski told New Jersey’s Channel 12 that the law would aim to educate drivers, not punish them. Yet few drivers might consider the penalties “educational,” with proposed sanctions that would be the nation’s harshest, matching those for illegal texts: A minimum $200 fine for a first offense, up to a maximum $800 fine, three license points and a 90-day suspension for a third or subsequent offense.

Certainly, long before man thumbed the first smart phone, drivers engaged in all manner of one-handed maneuvers that would get them flunked out of driving school, including unfolding those aforementioned maps, or worse, re-folding them. But a line, whether legal or de facto, has been drawn between some behaviors and others, such as raising a S’Mores Frappucino® to one's lips.

Enforcement for such minor, frothy misdemeanors might well be lax or haphazard. But a law is still a law. One that conjures images of stake-outs at the local drive-through to ensure a message gets through: Coffee and commuting don’t mix. The very thought would send Joe Pesci into a manic, caffeinated rage

Ultimately, it would take two hands to count the bill’s blind-to-reality oversights and vagueness. But for legislators who, we assume, spend at least some time on the state’s hellacious roads, one stands out: When you’re stuck on the Jersey Turnpike for hours, downing coffee is often the only way to stay awake and alert.