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Is It Illegal to Eat While Driving in California?

Distracted driving is a major problem in the United States, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported more than 3,400 deaths from distracted driving in 2016 alone. In light of the disturbing trend of distracted driving accidents in the U.S., many state governments have enacted distracted driving laws, but many of these laws pertain specifically to cell phone use.

Commuters and CA drivers who spend a great deal of time on the road may wonder whether eating behind the wheel constitutes distracted driving. While no law explicitly labels eating behind the wheel as a criminal offense, California has adopted a general distracted driving law that prevents drivers from acting in any manner that shows disregard for the safety of others or could potentially cause a driver to lose control of his or her vehicle. The California Highway Patrol recently announced their plan to crack down on distracted driving, including eating behind the wheel, applying cosmetics, using electronic devices, or otherwise failing to pay attention to the road.

Penalties for Eating While Driving

While a police officer may not be able to conduct a traffic stop simply because a driver is enjoying a burger while driving, the officer can conduct a traffic stop if the driver engages in any unsafe behaviors due to his or her meal. California law allows for the ticketing of drivers who act in any way that displays disregard for the safety of people and property nearby. Ticket fines can range from $145 to $1,000 depending on the severity of the offense.

Ultimately, eating behind the wheel could form justification for an officer conducting a traffic stop. If the driver who was eating while driving has any role in a traffic accident, the other driver could point to eating behind the wheel as evidence of negligence; the other driver may claim the eating driver was not fully in control of his or her vehicle or not paying enough attention and caused the accident in question.

Distracted Driving in California

Some drivers may see the recent changes in CA law and the habits of the California Highway Patrol as simply an effort to issue more citations and collect more state revenue from ticket fines, but the reality is that cracking down on all forms of distracted driving ultimately benefits everyone on the road in California. An experienced driver may feel completely comfortable eating behind the wheel or multitasking while driving, but these are inherently unsafe practices that ultimately equate to distractions.

Distractions behind the wheel generally take three forms: visual distractions that avert the driver’s eyes off the road, manual distractions that require the use of the driver’s hands, and cognitive distractions that preoccupy a driver’s mind when he or she should be focusing on driving safely. Eating behind the wheel mostly qualifies as a manual distraction, but it can also involve elements of the other two types in some cases. This creates a dangerous situation on the road, and it is always safer for a hungry driver to pull over and park to eat instead of risking an accident by eating while driving.

What to Do After a Distracted Driving Accident

If you become involved in a traffic accident with another driver and believe his or her eating caused your accident, contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. The police will likely create an official report of the accident and include their initial findings from the accident scene, and this document could be crucial to a future legal effort on your part. If an investigation determines the other driver caused the accident due to his or her eating behind the wheel, it is likely he or she will absorb liability for your damages as well as a citation for distracted driving.