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Is It Legal to Eat and Drive?

man-eating-in-car
By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on January 13, 2014 10:31 AM

Here's a question that hungry commuters may want answered: Is it legal to eat and drive?

It may seem like a silly question, given the number of drive-thru food options available. But with more states expanding their distracted driving laws, can eating while driving technically be considered unlawful?

So far, there's no law that explicitly bans the act of "eating" behind the wheel. However, because of the way distracted driving laws are worded, local law enforcement could potentially determine that shoveling a muffin in your mouth while maneuvering through traffic is enough to warrant a ticket.

What's Considered Distracted Driving?

When people think of distracted driving laws, they typically think of bans on talking on the phone or sending text messages. But these behaviors are often explicitly listed as illegal.

However, under most distracted driving laws, police can actually pull you over for engaging in any activity that prevents you from driving safely. This can include applying makeup while driving, cuddling with your dog while driving, or even eating while driving.

Here are some examples to chew over:

  • Washington state’s 2017 distracted driving law left many motorists confused about whether they could eat or sip on a drink while driving. While the law only specifically banned holding a cell phone or other electronic device, it does give officers the power to add on a secondary fine if they believe a driver acted erratically because they were distracted. That means if you make an illegal lane change while trying to eat your sandwich, you could get an extra fine.
  • New Jersey is also considering expanding its distracted driving ban to include eating while driving. The bill would prohibit "any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with ... safe operation," The Star-Ledger reports. Critics say it's too vaguely worded.

Avoiding Distracted Driving

It's easy to see how eating and driving can become a distraction -- dripping sauces, bad packaging, poor hand-to-mouth coordination, and hot temperatures can cause you to shift your focus from the road. It has happened before: In one case, a commercial truck driver choked on spicy pork rinds and lost control of his vehicle; luckily, he suffered only minor injuries and did not hit any other vehicles.

Since not every state has the same distracted driving laws, it’s important to be up to date before hitting the road. But maybe think about whether you really need to eat while behind the wheel.

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