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DO WE REALLY NEED THE PROPOSED NEW “DISTRACTED DRIVING” PROVISION AND IS IT LIKELY TO BE “VOID FOR VAGUENESS”?

A proposed addition to New Jersey’s distracted driving statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3 would add this language; “[a]n operator of a moving motor vehicle shall not engage in any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle on a public road or highway.”

There is already a lot of discussion of whether this will be applied to ticket those who drink coffee, eat, or engage in any activity that a police officer feels is unrelated to the operation of a motor vehicle that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle. Will this new provision be considered “void for vagueness” if adopted and challenged? The concept of vagueness or indefiniteness rests on the principle that the constitution requires fair notice and proper standards for punishment. The primary issues involved are whether the provisions of the statute are sufficiently definite to give reasonable notice of the prohibited conduct to those who wish to avoid its penalties and provide adequate standards for the determination of guilt. If the statute is so obscure that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its applicability, it is unconstitutional. State v. Lashinsky, 81 N.J. 1, 16 (1979).

The New Jersey Supreme Court in Lashinsky said “the decisive question for purposes of this vagueness argument is whether the defendant was reasonably apprised, as a matter of common intelligence, in light of ordinary human experience, that his particular conduct was unlawful.”
State v. Lashinsky, 81 N.J. 1, 18 (1979).

The question is then whether reasonable minds in light of ordinary experience could determine what is banned? It may be anything if that impairs the safe operation of the vehicle; speaking with a passenger, refereeing squabbling siblings in the back seat, checking a map or directions, eating, drinking, singing along with the music. This does seem to be overly broad and vague.

At the same time if it is the safe operation of the vehicle that is being addressed there are already other statutes addressing unsafe vehicle operation. Unsafe driving is already addressed by the careless driving statute, 39:4-97 (a person who drives a vehicle carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of careless driving) and reckless driving statute, 39:4-96 (a person who drives a vehicle heedlessly, in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of reckless driving). There is even a statute for driving so slow as to obstruct traffic, 39:4-97.1 (no person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law) and one for operating a vehicle in an unsafe manner, 39:4-97.2 (notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, it shall be unlawful for any person to drive or operate a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner likely to endanger a person or property). Any of these which are already in force are available to a police officer who observes unsafe driving.

Check our experienced Haddonfield NJ Personal Injury Attorneys for further help needed at the Law Firm of Craig, Annin & Baxter LLP.

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