“Distracted Driving” Laws in New Jersey Cover More than Just Cell Phones

“Distracted driving,” which typically refers to texting or talking on the phone while driving, is the subject of a wave of new laws around the country. While the focus is often on mobile phones, “distracted driving” laws could cover a much wider range of activities. This is of concern to us as DWI attorneys because any activity that a police officer reasonably believes to be a distraction could be grounds for a traffic stop, and all of the potential consequences of a traffic stop. No states have passed laws addressing specific distractions besides cell phones, although legislators in New Jersey have tried.

According to the state Attorney General, distracted driving was a factor in about 1.4 million automobile accidents in New Jersey between 2004 and 2013. This is nearly half of the three million accidents that occurred during this time period. Distracted driving was not the cause of all of those accidents, just a factor, but lawmakers have taken note and are taking a hard line on the subject. The Attorney General identifies activities that could constitute distractions while driving, including eating, checking one’s hair or makeup, using a GPS device or reading a map, and even adjusting the stereo. Any of these could, in theory, be grounds for a traffic stop.

In Georgia, police issued a citation to a man in mid-January 2015 for the alleged offense of “eating while driving.” The officer reportedly told the man that he had followed him for two miles after he purchased a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant, and that the officer had witnessed him eating the entire time. The officer wrote a ticket under the state’s distracted driving law, which does not specifically mention eating. Aside from cell phones and other mobile communications devices, Georgia law only requires drivers to “exercise due care.”

New Jersey’s distracted driving statute prohibits texting and the use of a handheld phone while driving, but it allows the use of a phone with a hands-free device like a headset. Several exceptions apply to the ban on handheld devices, including calls to report suspected DWI. State law prohibits reckless driving, careless driving, and unsafe driving, but it does not specifically mention any other “distracting” activities, like eating or grooming. “Unsafe driving” cases are tried in municipal courts, which are not courts of record, so few reported cases, if any, provide guidelines for what sorts of activities render driving “unsafe.”

Law enforcement, under the guidance of the Attorney General, is warning drivers that any activity that an officer deems to be a distraction threatening public safety could be grounds for a traffic stop and a citation. A bill introduced in the 2012-13 New Jersey legislative session would also have given the distracted driving statute a much wider scope. Assembly Bill 4461, in at least one version, would have banned activities “unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle” if they “interfere[] with the safe operation of the vehicle.” It would leave the meaning of those terms open to the interpretation of law enforcement officers. An Assembly committee reported favorably on the bill in November 2013, but it went no further during the session.

If you have been arrested or charged with DWI, a knowledgeable and skilled DWI attorney can advise you of your rights, protect your interests, and prepare the best possible defense for your case. We have dedicated 100% of our law practice at Levow & Associates to New Jersey DWI defense. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Supreme Court Rules that Traffic Stop Was Lawful, Despite Police Officer’s Misunderstanding of Traffic Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 20, 2015

Other Offenses Commonly Associated with DWI in New Jersey, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 6, 2014

Court Ruling May Make Footage of Traffic Stops Available Earlier in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 28, 2014

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