For decades, drivers around the country have been warned not to drink and drive, but for New Jersey motorists, that rule may soon apply to another accident-causing, dark brown, bitter liquid: coffee.
The caffeinated substance is in the crosshairs of a new bill being shopped around the state legislature that would make drinking coffee while driving a finable offense—or worse.
The legislation is intended to curb the amount of distracted driving on the roads, and, according to its architects, is modeled after a similar measure in Maine, which prohibits “any activity that is not necessary to operate the vehicle or that impairs the driver’s ability to safely operate it.”
And coffee isn’t the only boogeyman the bill hopes to chase out of Garden State vehicles. The legislation would also give law enforcement the right to issue tickets for drivers who are eating or even grooming themselves behind the wheel.
Those caught enjoying their breakfast staples or applying last-minute touch-ups to their look could be fined up to $400 for a first offense. Prices would rise for each subsequent infringement, and a third offense could even lead to a license suspension, making the proposed law the toughest in the nation if it were to be passed.
Can’t Leave Home Without It
While the bill is still several rounds of approval away from implementation, New Jersey drivers are up in arms about the situation.
Already dealing with the state’s cutthroat thoroughfares—which maddeningly fluctuate between venerable drag racing strips and stop-and-go traffic oceans—many in New Jersey’s commuter community have clung to their cups of joe as just one creature comfort to help them get through their less-than-polite morning rides.
Some have said that without the liquid fuel, they would barely be able to keep their eyes open, let alone keep up with traffic. Still others see the bill as one more way the government is trying to insert itself into their personal decision-making.
And for Garden State java institutions like Wawa and Dunkin’ Donuts—beacons of caffeinated hope that drivers will re-route their commutes to pass by for a cup on the run—the news is anything but welcoming. The coffee chains, as well as locally-owned brew houses and even fast-food restaurants or businesses that include a drive-thru, surely stand to lose much more than $400 should the law be passed.
Wean Off the Caffeine—or Else?
Still, however the numbers work out (or don’t) for motorists, coffee suppliers, and fast food chains alike, the statistics seem to favor the NJ legislature.
Eating, drinking, and most grooming habits are considered distracted driving triple-threats, meaning the activities not only take your eyes off the road—such as to locate your coffee in its cup holder—but also remove your hands from the wheel and take your mind off of driving, however fleetingly.
In fact, drivers who were eating or drinking were found to be 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a crash than those who weren’t, according to a 2014 study by the research firm Lytx.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration compiled even more alarming numbers, claiming that eating or drinking increases the likelihood of crashing by 80%, and that nearly 65% of near-misses are also caused by food- and drink-related distracted driving.
And personal grooming actions alone accounted for 6% of crashes in a 2014 study conducted by AAA, which focused on the driving habits of teenagers.
But despite the devastation caused by the actions, another study—this one spearheaded by ExxonMobil—found that 70% of the 1,000 drivers interviewed admitted to eating while driving, and 83% said they’ll sip a drink behind the wheel.
As the most densely populated state in the nation, and one where nearly everyone needs to drive to work, the amount of breakfasting and beautifying while at the helm of a moving car is undoubtedly high in New Jersey. Add in the state’s perennially pricy car insurance rates, and the coffee ban begins to look cost-effective as well as life-saving.
But even if Garden Staters can swallow the legislative pill, will its law enforcement be up to the task of screening for another potential penalty?
The answer, according to experts, is complicated.
New Jersey already employs several options for police to prosecute bad driving, including tickets that can be issued for motorists who are “unsafe,” “careless,” or “reckless” on the road. According to the state’s chapter of the National Motorists Association (NMA), those categories should be sufficient enough to punish dangerous maneuvering due to food, drink, or hairbrush.
Following the letter of the proposed new law would also force officers to see exactly how a driver was distracted, rather than merely stopping them for swerving or making otherwise unwise moves.
And NMA officials also wondered if the bill would kick off a slippery slope, making other common forms of distracted driving illegal, such as turning the radio dial or singing while behind the wheel—which was actually responsible for more accidents than grooming behaviors in the AAA teen study, causing 8% of crashes that happened during the research.
Bill proponents in the NJ legislature say it’s not as much about the specifics of the bill as breaking bad habits behind the wheel. Getting pulled over for balancing attention between a burrito and the brake pedal may leave a driver unwilling to attempt the feat again, they say. Hopeful supporters have likened the idea to seatbelt legislation, which has helped usher in a dramatic increase of drivers wearing the safety strap.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the New Jersey bill, though, distracted driving is undoubtedly a huge issue—and, with an exponentially growing death toll, one that must be addressed—soon. The repercussions of not doing so might even be as frightening as a highway full of Garden Staters who are hungry, tired, and hankering for caffeine.