Is it legal to look at your watch in the car?

From among the gossip and glitter and confusion surrounding an early production night last Tuesday came an interesting subject: what exactly is legal while driving?

We all know that texting or talking on a cell phone has been illegal in California for about a year now. “But what?” asks a coworker, “about putting makeup on in the car? I’ve seen a woman with a hot curling iron plugged into cigarette lighter riding down the road giving herself a perm! That’s got to be at least as dangerous as sending a text!”

Other questions quickly arose as they do in these types of ‘what if’ conversations. One person has heard you can drink while driving in Texas as long as you’re under the legal limit. Another claims they know someone else (of course) who got a ticket when they were looking at their phone to see what time it was and a passing policemen thought (incorrectly, I suppose) that they were texting on their phone (but didn’t the car have a clock in it?). And a third wonders how steering with your knees while dipping French fries into buffalo sauce can possibly be less harmful than texting.

Scholarly books such as this one by Tom Vanderbilt have posited that laws and public perceptions about driving have indeed been unbalanced for quite some time. Vanderbilt argues that talking on a cell phone while driving has shown to be just as dangerous as driving drunk. However, if you tell your friends “I drove home last night talking on a cell phone” it’s likely to get quite a different reaction than “I drove home sloshed last night.”

Drunk drivers could also lower their potential threat to themselves and others by driving very slowly, says Vanderbilt, however most do not for fear of getting pulled over for it.

And what about the very concept of a ‘designated driver’. What if four people went out to a restaurant but one wasn’t allowed to eat? What if a whole van went to see a movie but the driver couldn’t watch?

Or if you said, “I read books while driving.” Doesn’t that sound worse than “I text while driving”? But, duh, texting involves reading!
Anyway, here are the answers based on a few Google searches:

  1. Is it illegal to put makeup on while driving?
    Apparently this isn’t illegal per se, but can be ticketed under labels such as “second degree negligent driving” and “careless driving” (which makes one wonder why texting while driving specifically was ever made illegal).
  2. What about eating and driving?
    Again, nothing specific on this one.
  3. Okay, how about reading?
    Well, Maine is trying to answer all these questions with a new bill that makes all distracted driving illegal, be it eating or makeup or maybe even looking at your watch. This seems nice until you consider that it makes ancient activities illegal (like driving while applying makeup, which was probably invented 3 days after the first woman got a driver’s license) and could easily be abused by quota-seeking cops (how many driving activities don’t cause some type of distraction?), plus it sounds like a form of thought police.
  4. How about driving while drinking but still under the legal limit?
    Not in Texas, but apparently in Montana this is legal (though they do have an official speed limit now).

So there you have it! Maine’s bill is supposedly attracting some national attention, so enjoy that front-seat Whopper and curling iron while you can. In the mean time, just make sure you don’t do this when rolling by the fuzz.

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