NMA Reboot: What is the True Definition of Distracted Driving?

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: A Georgia man was recently cited for eating a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese while driving down the highway. Georgia’s distracted driving law does not explicitly prohibit eating while driving but does say that a driver “shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle.” Should the mere fact of engaging in a particular activity behind the wheel result in a citation, even when there is no evidence that the motorist was driving irresponsibly?  That’s the question. For the answer, let’s go back to an early NMA e-newsletter that outlines the NMA’s common-sense position on distracted driving. 


NMA Email Newsletter: Issue #31: Texting While Driving Gains Attention

Four Democratic U.S. senators proposed legislation last month that turned up the pressure on states to enforce bans on text messaging while driving. If enacted, states are threatened with losing federal highway funds if texting while driving isn’t outlawed.

Having laws on the books against specific types of distracted driving is one of those issues that seems hard to argue against — until you stop to think about the many innocuous driving habits people have that could be unduly regulated.

Before providing a startling example of how far legislators have already tried to go in this regard, here is the NMA position on distracted driving: States already have laws against distracted driving. Enforce those laws against motorists who have exhibited distracted or inattentive driving through the actual operation of their vehicle, rather than taking preemptive action against specific types of behavior even when a motorist is driving safely.

Let’s face it, common sense indicates that driving while texting, or completing a crossword puzzle, or shaving, or applying makeup (or any combination thereof), can be a serious distraction to most drivers. Some people are a bit more ambivalent when the driving behavior involves talking on a cell phone. Even more people are unconcerned about a driver taking his/her eyes off of the road for a second or two to make a change to the vehicle’s climate control or audio systems.

To illustrate how slippery of a slope this can be, take a look at some language that was proposed for California’s distracted driving law just a few years ago. It was defeated, thankfully so, because it is hard to imagine any driver who hasn’t engaged in at least one of these activities at some point. You can be sure future attempts will be made to reintroduce such language into state vehicle codes.

“A ‘distracting activity’ is any of the following:
(1) Using or adjusting a wireless telephone, regardless of whether the telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free operation.
2) Using or adjusting a personal electronic device, including, but not limited to, a personal digital assistant.
(3) Adjusting the controls of an audio or other entertainment device.
(4) Adjusting or manipulating the controls of an information system device.
(5) Smoking.
6) Eating or drinking.
(7) Interacting with children, animals, passengers, or objects in the vehicle.
(8) Performing personal grooming or personal hygiene activities.
(9) Reading or writing.”

If you feel yourself becoming a bit complacent about proposed restrictions on distracted driving in your state, just reread the defeated California proposal above, and think what it would be like to be pulled over in your vehicle because of the perception that you were doing something more active behind the wheel than chewing gum.

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