The Law on Eating or Drinking While Driving

By Jimmy Singh & Tayla Regan

Is it Illegal to Eat Food While Driving Your Car?

You will be happy to know that eating your meal or drinking a coffee in the car while driving will not mean that you are breaking the law.

Currently, there is no law in any Australian state or territory that prohibits you from eating or drinking a cup of coffee while driving.

What if I Cause an Accident from Drinking Coffee or Eating Food While I was Driving?

Whilst the law may not specifically prohibit you from eating while driving, you can be charged with dangerous or negligent driving where, because of eating or drinking coffee while driving, your attention was distracted from the road contributing to the accident.

What are the Penalties of Negligent Driving?

What is Negligent Driving?

Negligent driving is where you drive a motor vehicle in such a manner where you fail to exercise the kind of care and attention a reasonable prudent driver would’ve exercised in the circumstances.

Penalties of Negligent Driving

There is no disqualification period, nor any term of imprisonment for the offence of negligent driving, however, there is a maximum penalty of up to $1,100 fine. See section 117(1) Road Transport Act 2013 (NSW).

If you commit the more serious forms of negligent driving, for example, where it causes death or grievous bodily harm on another person, then you will be liable to face the following maximum penalties:

Negligent driving occasioning death – penalty of up to $3,300 fine and/or 18 months imprisonment, and an automatic disqualification period of 3 years unless the court decides to reduce this to a minimum of 1-year disqualification. The penalties are more severe if you have a previous conviction for this within the last 5 years.

Negligent driving occasioning grievous bodily harm – penalty of up to $2,200 fine and/or imprisonment of 9 months, and automatic disqualification period of 3 years, unless the court exercises its discretion to reduce this to a minimum 1-year disqualification period. The penalties are more severe if you have previously been convicted of the same offence within the last 5 years.

What does Grievous Bodily Harm mean?

Grievous bodily harm refers to harm that includes any serious or permanent disfigurement.

What are the Penalties of Dangerous Driving?

What is Dangerous Driving?

The case of R v Buttsworth [1983] expressed the meaning of ‘dangerous driving’, which is where you’re driving in a manner or speed dangerous to the public. This can include either a real danger, or potential danger. Whether such danger exists, depends largely on the circumstances of the case- condition of your vehicle, conditions of the roadway or environment.

Penalties of Dangerous Driving

The penalties of dangerous driving occasioning death or grievous bodily harm include:

Dangerous driving causing death – maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, an automatic licence disqualification of 3 years with the discretion for the court to reduce the disqualification to 12 months. Heavier penalties apply if you already have a major offence on your record within the last 5 years.

Dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm – carries a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment, and an automatic licence disqualification of 3 years, with a discretion for the court to reduce this to a minimum of 12 months disqualification. Heavier penalties apply if you already committed a major offence within the last 5 years.

This is all reflected in s52A Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

Is Eating While Driving Just as Dangerous as Texting While Driving?

A study conducted by the Griffith Health Institute in 2015 looked at how distracting it can be for a driver who is in control of a vehicle while eating fast food. The study revealed that eating and driving was equally as distracting as texting while driving.

Is Driving While Eating Certain Foods More Dangerous Than Other Types of Foods?

Interestingly, the RMS have posted a list of food considered ‘dangerous’ while driving on their website.

The site lists numerous reasons why certain foods would cause a distraction and take your focus off the road. The discussion attempts to spread awareness of the hazards of driving whilst eating.

Whilst it is not an offence to consume food or drink a coffee while driving, it may compromise your ability to make decisions and drive to an appropriate standard. Problems may clearly arise where this contributes to an accident on the road.

Examples of Some Legal Consequences from Driving Whilst Eating

The below are examples of cases where the driver has faced legal consequences because of consuming food whilst driving, despite the absence of any law prohibiting the act of consuming food whilst driving.

The Cereal-Eating Driver in Western Australia

You may have seen photographs recently floating around the internet of a Western Australian P-Plater who was snapped eating a bowl of cereal while driving.

The P-Plate driver was only noticed as she became a threat to road users while she was weaving in and out of traffic lanes.

Before locating the driver, the Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said, ‘whatever charge we can apportion to that driver, we will…this is a serious matter’.

After the photograph of the driver and her registration plate went viral, the police eventually caught up with her- she ended up getting a $300 fine and 3 demerit points for driving without due care and attention.

UK Ex-Premier Footballer fined for eating ice cream while driving

In 2014, an ex-premier league footballer, Marlon King, was driving his Porsche when he caused a 3-car pile-up. The incident occurred due to him eating ice cream behind the wheel at the time.

King was observed weaving in and out of traffic after purchasing an ice cream from McDonalds only moments earlier. He remained distracted and caused a large collision.

The UK footballer admitted to dangerous driving just before the matter proceeding to Trial. The Court took into consideration his lengthy record of convictions and handed him a 3-year driving ban.

It is highly recommended to be prepared with well structured good character reference letters to hand up to the Judge for your traffic matter in the event you proceed to sentence. See character reference for court driving offence for guidance on this.

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