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August 09, 2016

Motorists slam proposal to expand distracted driving law

'This is grandstanding. There is no other reason,' says lawyer, citing studies showing no benefit

Driving Distracted
080716_CoffeeDriving Source/AP

Man drinks coffee while driving.

A New Jersey assemblyman's proposal to impose hefty fines on drivers doing anything behind the wheel but actually driving is bad legislation for lots of reasons, motorists said Tuesday.

Jeff Robinson, a brewmaster who always fills a coffee go-cup for his drive to work said, “It’s crazy. I didn’t believe it at first. I had to look it up to believe it.”

“It’s typical of New Jersey," he added. "We try to govern people into safety instead of them doing the safe thing.”

Related story: New Jersey bill could outlaw drinking coffee while driving

At the same time, Robinson admits people do “horrible things" while driving. He once witnessed a woman driving on an interstate who was folding laundry, then stacking it in the back seat.

Another critic, Brett Horner, called the proposal “a way to make money.”

Most people PhillyVoice interviewed Tuesday would hit the brakes on the bill.

In fact, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), the sponsor of the legislation, is tapping the brakes after taking a heavy pummeling from critics on social media and elsewhere.

Specifically, the measure could levy fines for any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle.” That would include swigging from a coffee cup, unwrapping a candy bar, handing cookies to kids in the backseat, etc.

Fine for a first offense? The proposal calls for not less than $200 or not more than $400. A second offense would carry a minimum of $400 and a maximum of $600. Subsequent offenses would carry bigger fines and, perhaps, forfeiting the right to drive for 90 days. 

Wisniewski is backpedaling a bit now, however. According to media reports, he said he doubts a police officer would ticket someone for driving while caffeinated – though the proposed law is broad enough to allow it.

The ridicule of the broad reach of his proposal has been so amplified that a Google search for the phrase “nanny state” yields news stories about the proposal.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety even disagrees with Wisniewski and his rationale.

Russ Rader, an Institute spokesman told the Asbury Park Press: "With education and vigorous enforcement of safety belt laws, we saw immediate effects with fewer deaths. We're not seeing the same kind of immediate safety benefits with education and enforcement of cellphone laws."

"Addressing distracted driving through new laws is not likely to be an effective approach to make roads safer," he concluded.


South Jersey residents on Tuesday were not inclined to give the veteran liberal legislator the benefit of the doubt on this one. They see it as a money grab and an unneeded intrusion.

“Why don’t we just put little cameras in every car?” Kym, a consultant whose driving often includes java, asked rhetorically.

Kim Johnson was tossing out a coffee cup and going to get another for her drive when PhillyVoice caught up to her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said the nurse, who added she’s never been distracted due to coffee. She’s good with the current ban on cell calls and texting, though.

Wisniewski is also proposing overhauling those already-strict laws.

Jesse, who fuels himself on coffee for driving at least every week, likes the cellphone law – having been hit by a driver using a cellphone earlier this year.

But the rest? “A bit much,” he said.

Brittany, who said she drives while sipping a milkshake, “pretty often,” said that’s never been a safety issue.

“It’s just stupid,” she said.

Nick Fausto, a Medford lawyer who handles lots of New Jersey motor vehicle cases, said he was familiar with research that shows blanket bans are ineffective.

“This is grandstanding. There is no other reason,” he said. “You don’t simply take away rights.”