Analysis: Coffee And Driving Ban Unlikely To Pass In New Jersey

By John Celock

Apparently New Jersey’s biggest transportation issue is not the endless debate over a gas tax to replenish a broke Transportation Trust Fund or reforming the Port Authority, it’s people who drink coffee and eat bagels while driving.

Well at least according to the chairman of the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee coffee and bagels while driving need to be banned immediately, along with driving and grooming. Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D) and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D), a member of the transportation panel, have introduced the measure in an attempt to crackdown on distracted driving. It would be tougher than bans in Maine and Utah, currently the country’s most stringent.

Wisniewski says that the goal is to reduce distracted driving deaths, which he says number 3,000 annually. That is an admirable goal, but he has opened up the state to becoming a national joke with the coffee ban. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D), a likely 2017 gubernatorial candidate, has taken a firm stand against the measure. Wisniewski is considering a gubernatorial bid next year as well.

For all the coverage, the bill is likely going nowhere. It can easily get a hearing in the transportation committee, since well Wisniewski controls the agenda. It can even get a vote there, but it ends there. I cannot see it ever getting a vote in the full Assembly or in the Senate or even making it to the governor. For several reasons.

First off the coffee and bagel lobby, and presumably the makeup and hair care lobby, will be out in force to oppose this bill. They will likely find stats on distracted driving comparing texting versus coffee drinking, to help their cause. They will also likely say this will hurt business since coffee shops are after all businesses. The second avenue I can see from the lobbyists is the trucking industry arguing that this will hurt truckers going through New Jersey and to and from the Port of Newark. Not only argue that it will put a new ban in place that other states on the heavily traveled corridor don’t have but it will reduce alertness from not having caffeine.

But there is a second reason it is unlikely to ever pass and that is one that no lobbyist will have an impact on.

I cannot see 41 members of the Assembly and 21 senators coming together to vote in favor of this bill. For two main reasons. The first being no legislator will want to open themselves up to criticism from constituents that they voted in favor of banning drinking coffee while driving. While voters may favor the texting and driving ban and will even jump on board with a no putting on makeup or hair care while driving, the simple act of sipping coffee or eating a hand held food item is different. New Jersey voters are a common sense group and will question a new bill that is against common sense. They will see a ban on something they do regularly and also one that promotes alertness from the caffeine.

The second is most members of the state Legislature are likely eating and sipping coffee while driving and they won’t want the ban. Many are commuting to Trenton in the morning and likely eating breakfast on the commute and want coffee to stay alert on the drive home after a late session.

Wisniewski now argues that police will not pull anyone over for drinking coffee while driving if his bill passes. While that might be the case, once it is a state law it can happen and could easily become commonplace. It almost begs to reason why is he sponsoring a bill that he says police will ignore once it becomes law. In that case, is it even worth having legislative attorneys spend time drafting the bill?

This bill is good for public debate and comic fodder but unlikely to go forward in the future.