Can I Get Pulled Over for Eating and Driving in California?
Eating and driving may be part of a driver’s everyday routine and seem like a harmless practice. The reality is that eating behind the wheel is a form of distracted driving, one of the leading causes of serious traffic accidents in California. While there is no specific law that bans the practice of eating behind the wheel, California has outlawed distracted driving, and an activity like eating would likely qualify as a distracting activity, justifying a traffic stop.
Dangers of Eating and Driving
Three main types of distractions cause distracted driving accidents:
- Visual distractions draw a driver’s eyes off the road.
- Manual distractions require the use of a driver’s hands when they should be used to maintain control of the vehicle.
- Cognitive distractions occupy a driver’s mind while he or she should be focusing on driving.
Eating requires the use of at least one hand, and although eating may seem easy behind the wheel, a driver could easily drop a piece of food, suffer a burn from hot food, or spill something. Even a momentary distraction may be enough to cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle.
Many drivers unfortunately fail to realize that driving while distracted for even a second or two can lead to a serious accident. California is notorious for high traffic congestion, higher-than-average speed limits, and very fast-moving highway traffic. Any sort of distraction is incredibly dangerous anywhere in California.
Justification for Traffic Stops
A driver casually sipping a drink in a cupholder is unlikely to receive a ticket in California; a police officer must observe a driver showing a clear disregard for the safety of other drivers to pull a driver over for distracted driving. Depending on the driver’s behavior, eating behind the wheel could lead to reckless driving charges, punishable by substantial fines and even jail time in some areas of the state.
For example, a driver struggling with a food item’s packaging, dipping sauces, or eating something with a utensil can easily cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. A police officer who observes a driver engaged in such behavior would likely conduct a traffic stop, especially if the driver’s hands are obviously compromised.
California Distracted Driving Laws
California law does not expressly forbid eating while driving, but the state’s distracted driving law restricts any action that limits a driver’s ability to control his or her vehicle.
- Applying cosmetics and grooming
- Watching media on a wireless device
- Manipulating vehicle climate control or stereo settings
- Eating and drinking
California has a separate law for cell phone use, banning the use of any wireless communication device without a hands-free attachment. Depending on a driver’s conduct with a cell phone, a police officer may issue a citation for distracted driving, a violation of the cell phone ban while driving, or both. The California Highway Patrol has issued more than half a million tickets for cell phone use violations and more than 11,000 citations for texting while driving since 2008.
Some critics of California’s distracted driving law claim the law is too vague in its description of distractions behind the wheel. However, the creators and supporters of these laws hold to the logic that all drivers should aim to drive responsibly at all times and refrain from distracting activities because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear of legal punishment. Allowing police officers the flexibility to use good judgment and conduct traffic stops as required ensures dangerous drivers get the attention they deserve without squandering police time and resources for potentially frivolous issues.
Ultimately, California is one of the toughest states in the country for drivers, and every California driver has a responsibility to drive safely and abide by all applicable traffic laws. If you must stop for something to eat while driving, either stop and enjoy your meal while safely parked or wait to eat until you arrive at your destination.