Puff & Drive in Peril?

N.J. considers ban on smoking while behind the wheel

TRENTON, N.J. -- Ashtrays have been disappearing in cars like fins on Cadillacs, and so could smoking while driving in New Jersey, under a measure introduced in the state legislature, said the Associated Press.

Although the measure faces long odds, it still has smokers incensed and arguing that it is a Big Brother intrusion that threatens to take away one of the few places they can enjoy their habit.

Offenders would face fines of up to $250 under the measure, the sponsor of which said it is designed more to improve highway safety [image-nocss] than protect health.

Some states, including New Jersey, have considered putting the brakes on smoking while children are in the car. But none have gone for an outright ban on smoking while driving, according to Washington, D.C.-based Action on Smoking & Health, the country's oldest anti-tobacco organization.

Smokers, feeling like easy targets, say enough already. They argue they have been forced outside office buildings, run off the grounds of public facilities and asked to pony up more in per-pack excise taxes when states feel a budget squeeze.

Assemblyman John McKeon, a tobacco opponent whose father died of emphysema, sponsored the legislation. He cited a AAA-sponsored study on driver distractions in which the automobile association found that of 32,000 accidents linked to distraction, 1% were related to smoking.

The measure, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorretta Weinberg, a fellow Democrat, was introduced last month just before lawmakers' summer break. It faces some improbable odds for passing.

Some lawmakers may fear the bill is frivolous compared with more pressing issues like taxes, said political analyst David Rebovich. And there's this to consider: Traffic safety groups acknowledge motorists now widely ignore the state's year-old law against using hand-held cell phones, so why would smoking be any different?

Mitchell Sklar, of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said police departments may balk at enforcing such a law. "In general, we'd rather not try to incrementally look at every single behavior and make those a violation," he said.