No state, including California, has a law that prohibits eating while driving. You might interpret this as a tacit admission that you can safely eat and drive in some situations.
But every state, including California, has reckless driving laws. These laws do not specifically refer to eating. But prosecutors can apply them to situations where eating becomes a distraction and causes you to drive recklessly.
Here is an overview of the laws that might create both civil and criminal liability for individuals who eat while driving in California.
What is Distracted Driving?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, distracted driving includes any behavior that takes your mind, hands, or eyes off driving.
Examples of behaviors that might cause a distraction include:
- Watching videos
- Putting on makeup
- Talking to other occupants or on the phone
According to this definition, eating while driving qualifies as a distraction on all three counts. Eating will occupy at least one hand, take your eyes off the road, and distract your mind.
California’s Reckless Driving Law
California’s reckless driving law is the most likely criminal law to apply to eating and driving. This law prohibits drivers from driving with willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other people.
In the law, “willful and wanton” covers a lot of behaviors, including:
If a driver intentionally creates a risk to others, the driver has acted willfully and wantonly. A road rage incident might involve a driver who deliberately bumps another driver’s car. This intentional car accident would justify charges of reckless driving against the aggressor.
Conscious disregard means that a driver deliberately ignores the risk to others. A street racer, for example, might claim ignorance of the dangers of street racing. But the risks of street racing to the racers and bystanders are so well known that the participants would need to intentionally blind themselves to the risks to claim ignorance.
If a police officer were to cite a driver for eating and driving, the officer would likely rely on the driver’s utter indifference to the safety of others. Eating in a car does not always create a safety risk. Most drivers can safely drink a cold soda with a lid and straw.
But as you add in other factors, eating while driving becomes more dangerous.
Some of these factors might include food or drink that is:
- Unwieldy to hold safely in one hand
At some point, the accumulation of factors might pose a risk to the safety of others. Eating and driving in the face of these risks could constitute reckless driving.
How Does Negligence Apply to Eating While Driving in California?
California uses a fault-based auto insurance system. This means that the driver who caused an accident bears legal liability for the damages resulting from it.
To prove fault for an accident in a personal injury case, you will usually rely on negligence. Under California law, the standard of proof for negligence is lower than recklessness. Recklessness requires intent, even if the intent only arises to the level of indifference. Negligence, on the other hand, requires no intent.
When applied to eating and driving, this difference plays a critical role. For a prosecutor to win a reckless driving conviction, they must prove that the driver knew of the risks posed by eating and driving but ignored them. This means that ignorance of the risks might provide a defense against criminal charges.
To win a negligence lawsuit against the same driver, you only need to prove that a reasonable driver in the same situation would have recognized the risks. Even if this driver did not appreciate the risks, you can still win a lawsuit by proving that the driver should have known them.
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