Is it Illegal to Eat while Driving in California?

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Eating and driving has become such a common practice that many California drivers don’t think twice before stopping at a drive-thru and eating breakfast or lunch behind the wheel. Yet California’s distracted driving laws may lead to tickets and citations for people who eat and drive. Eating is a form of driver distraction – something that caused at least 3,450 deaths in 2016. Before you take that In-N-Out burger to go, think about the potential consequences of eating and driving in California.

Does California’s Distracted Driving Law Pertain to Food?

Eating and drinking are two significant forms of driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and are the cause of a staggering number of vehicle accidents. California lawmakers have made efforts to reduce the rate of distracted driving, mainly in the form of cell phone laws. Section 23123.5 of the California Vehicle Code makes it against the law to drive while holding and operating a handheld cell phone or other “electronic wireless communications device.” Hands-free device use is legal in California.

Violating the handheld phone law in California can result in a fine of $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. Although the most common form of driver distraction is cell phone use, eating, drinking, chatting with passengers, and personal grooming are also dangerous. Distraction can reference the occupation of a driver’s attention, hands, or eyes on something other than driving. Although there is no California law explicitly prohibiting eating while driving, police can cite related laws to ticket distracted drivers.

California Vehicle Code Section 22350, for example, states no person may drive a vehicle at a speed that endangers the safety of others. Police officers may be able to use this basic speed law to ticket a distracted driver who was exceeding the speed limit while eating behind the wheel. Many officers cite this statute to ticket reckless drivers who endanger the safety of others. If a California police officer sees you eating and driving, it is possible that you could receive a traffic ticket. However, the distinction between what you can and cannot do safely behind the wheel is subjective according to the situation.

Drawing the Distracted Driving Line

Just the act of eating and driving may not constitute a reason for a traffic ticket if the driver can safely remain in control of the vehicle. The officer must have another reason to cite the driver, such as speeding or reckless driving. To ticket or not to ticket is largely up to the officer’s belief of whether the driver in question can safely multitask. If a driver is eating but paying strict attention to the road, keeping his/her hands on the wheel, and driving safely, an officer may not have grounds to conduct a traffic stop.

In general, drivers are better off waiting until they get home to eat. Even if a driver believes he or she can safely eat and drive, odds are the meal will take at least some of the driver’s attention from the roadway. A driver will need to take at least one hand off the wheel to grab a bite, and possibly the eyes off the road. Driving in California requires 100% of a driver’s attention. Otherwise, a distracted driver may not be able to react to changing roadway situations in time to avoid collisions.

There may not be an exact law against eating and driving in California, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get in trouble. You could get a ticket and a $150 fine if eating interferes with your ability to drive safely. If you cause an accident while eating behind the wheel, you could be liable for damages. Your insurance premium could increase and you could even receive points on your license. Keep yourself and others safe – don’t eat and drive.

If you or a loved one was injured in a motor vehicle accident because of distracted driving, contact the Los Angeles accident attorneys at Panish Shea & Boyle LLP today about your case! (310) 477-1700