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Is it Illegal to Eat While Driving in California?

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Distracted driving is one of the most dangerous driver habits in California. Too many drivers take slow traffic or busy lives as excuses to multitask while driving. Doing anything other than driving while behind the wheel, however, can put roadway users at risk. Nationwide, over 3,100 people died in distracted driving accidents in 2017 alone. One of the most common types of driver distractions in California is eating or drinking while driving.

The Legalities of Distracted Driving

Although distracted driving in any form can constitute driver negligence, it may not be a crime depending on the situation. California only criminalizes certain types of distracted driving. Like most states, California passed laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel. It is illegal to write, read or send text messages using a cellphone while driving in California. It is also against the law to use a handheld phone to make phone calls or perform other tasks, such as watching videos or looking at social media sites. Breaking the state’s cellphone law could result in traffic citations and fines.

A police officer in California can pull a driver over only for breaking the cellphone law. An officer cannot, however, pull someone over just for eating while driving. Eating and driving is technically not against the law in California. A law does exist, however, prohibiting drivers from exhibiting a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others. This reckless driving law (California Vehicle Code 23103) makes it a crime to drive a vehicle without regard for the safety of other people or property. The penalties for reckless driving can be up to $1,000 and/or a jail sentence of up to 90 days.

When Is Distracted Driving Reckless Driving?

It is common knowledge that to safely and prudently operate a vehicle, a driver must keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. A reasonable driver, therefore, would recognize the potential dangers of eating while driving. Eating can distract a driver’s attention from the driving task manually, visually and cognitively. Distracted driving is an act of negligence that may border on recklessness in certain situations.

  • In school zones
  • Around bicyclists or pedestrians
  • With children in the car
  • While speeding
  • If weaving through traffic
  • If unable to control the vehicle

Eating while driving may be negligent, but it is not a crime until it meets the definition of reckless driving. If eating makes a driver do reckless things, such as running a red light, only then may an officer pull the driver over. Simple negligence behind the wheel is not enough to constitute a crime or give an officer the right to conduct a traffic stop. It can, however, be enough to make the distracted driver liable for a related car accident in California.

Eating While Driving and Civil Liability

Even if eating while driving is not illegal in California, it is a dangerous practice that could kill. A driver distracted by food or drink behind the wheel may have delayed reaction times, poor judgment and lack of vehicle control that ultimately causes a vehicle collision. In these cases, the distracted driver may be civilly liable for a victim’s damages.

The at-fault driver may be responsible for paying for the victim’s medical bills, property repairs and other losses. Civil liability could increase a driver’s insurance premiums and add points to his or her driver’s license. If the distracted driver recklessly took a life, he or she may face criminal charges such as vehicular manslaughter.

Eating while driving can have extremely serious consequences. It could inflict life-changing or fatal injuries on victims – especially bicyclists and pedestrians. It could also lead to criminal and civil liabilities for the at-fault driver. All drivers must take reasonable care not to eat while driving.