Eating behind the Steering Wheel and Distracted Driving
The first thought for most on distracted driving is about texting while driving and drunk driving. Eating while driving is, however, one of the most common forms of distracted driving.
With a fast-paced modern life and drivers rushing from one responsibility to another fast food and convenience stores are the quick and easy options for a meal or a snack.
The modern convenience of the restaurant drive-thru window enables motorists to order and consume their favourite foods without removing the key from their vehicle’s ignition or their bodies from the driver’s seat.
The consumption of food while driving significantly increases crash risk. In this section, we will discuss this threat to road safety and how we can increase awareness about the prevention of distracted driving.
How is our ability to drive safely and prevent crashes affected?
The distractions that affect driving ability can be categorized into 3 groups:
- Visual distractions: When a driver’s eyes are diverted away from the road to complete or pay attention to another task.
- Manual distractions: When drivers are required to take their hands off the wheel.
- Cognitive distractions: When the mind and focus of the driver are taken away from driving.
These distractions are all dangerous on the road, but when combined they pose an even greater risk to the driver, passenger, and pedestrian safety. Eating and driving often incorporate a combination of one or more distractions.
Safe driving requires mental alertness and the ability to react swiftly and effectively to threats on the road. These abilities are significantly reduced when additional demands require their attention.
- When a driver does not have both hands on the steering wheel, he may not respond effectively to a sudden emergency such as a child running across the road, a tyre blowout from an oncoming vehicle etc.
- Someone who has just spilt a hot beverage on themselves may cause an unexpected hazard in the road for another.
- Even passengers consuming food and trying to feed the driver could make the driver take his/her focus away from the road.
- The vision and focus of the driver may be affected when trash from food ends up on the floorboard, creating a potentially hazardous cluttered driving environment.
- Cans and food packaging may get entangled under the brake pedal if not safely secured.
These threats are especially prevalent for those who drive for a living and do not make a conscious decision to stop at a safe spot for refreshments. Some long-distance truck drivers have even been found preparing food next to them while driving!
Why is Eating behind the Steering Wheel so Dangerous?
It may be important to consider what goes into the process of eating behind the steering wheel to understand why this such a dangerous driver distraction:
- It combines the three main types of driver distractions: visual, manual, and cognitive.
- Eating almost always takes both hands from the steering wheel.
- It is not merely putting food in our mouths-it involves manipulating packaging, inserting straws, and avoiding spills.
- Food items come in paper bags that must be unfolded, wrappers that must be removed, sauce packets must be torn and squirted, and tend to drip onto the most inconvenient surfaces.
- Drivers bringing food and leftovers from home may have to battle with container lids, cutlery, and trying to digest some less-than-convenient foods.
- Food is mostly held with at least one hand with the driver too often trying to apply condiments.
- Spilling beverages - especially hot beverages-is extremely distracting and could result in some recklessly evasive responses from a driver.
- Quenching your thirst while driving can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.
- Large to-go cups can obscure your field of vision as you bring them towards your mouth for a gulp.
- Straws need to be unwrapped and inserted into lids, taking your hands and eyes from the road for several seconds.
- Many takeaway drinks have caps that can be awkward to remove and replace, taking on a life of their own as they fly through the vehicle and under the seat, never to be found again.
- All these actions require you to take your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and your mental focus off the task of driving safely.
- Too many road users do not bin their litter - Littering attracts roadkill and endangers the lives of those who need to clean our trash from next to the road!
Traffic officers often observe seemingly reckless or drunk driving only to find drivers having spilt their coffee or dropping a French fry and ducking down to pick it up.
It is important to recognize that even crashes at low speeds can have long-lasting, permanent health effects.
Many drivers might justify snacking or sipping their coffee in traffic when they aren't going that fast. But even distraction during that period can be dangerous for motorists and result in common rear-end collisions.
Data on the Dangers of Eating Behind the Steering Wheel while Driving
An EXXON-Mobile survey of 1,000 individuals claims 70% of drivers have admitted to eating while driving, and 80% admitted to drinking non-alcoholic beverages on the road.
Various studies have offered insights to data on the exact threat to safety. The most important research data from the U.S would be the following:
- According to a Lytx study in 2014, a driver who is drinking or eating is 3.6 times more likely to be in an automobile crash than attentive drivers who are not eating or drinking while driving.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the “secondary task distraction” of eating or drinking from an open container while driving increases the likelihood of near-miss crashes or crashes by nearly 39 per cent.
Eating, Distracted Driving and the Law
- Ingesting food and non-alcoholic driving exist in a legal grey area.
- Most countries have some type of ban on using handheld electronics while operating a motor vehicle.
- There is however no legislation that explicitly and specifically bans eating and consuming non-alcoholic drinks while driving.
- You could potentially be pulled over if caught driving recklessly while grabbing your meal.
- If someone does take their hands off the steering wheel while driving, this could be considered reckless driving.
- The dangerous habit of eating behind the wheel would, however, be extremely difficult to prove in court.
- Traffic officials would not have a breathalyzer or a log of texts to rely on as evidence.
- Self-enforcement and company policies prohibiting drivers from eating and driving might be important tools to prevent this dangerous distraction.
Most Dangerous Foods to Consume while Driving
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranked the 10 most dangerous types of food to eat while driving. The foods that top the list include chocolate, soft drinks, jelly and cream-filled or powdered doughnuts, fried chicken, barbecued food, hamburgers, chilli, tacos, soups and coffee.
Preventing Driver Distractions and Safety when Eating on the Road
Safety on the roads needs to start even before we turn the ignition - it starts with a well-rested and healthy driver planning the drive!
- Food-related distracted driving crashes are avoidable.
- Instead of eating while driving, set your alarm to wake you up just a few minutes earlier so you can eat at home before the drive.
- By avoiding at-risk foods and simply waiting until you are home to have a meal, drivers can significantly reduce the chances of a serious or fatal car crash.
- If you go through a drive-thru to pick-up your lunch, take a few minutes to eat it in the restaurant’s parking lot.
- When finished eating, throw away your trash in the receptacles most chains have conveniently located among their parking spots. Do Not Litter!
- Don't keep food in your car after all, if it's not there, you can't eat it and be distracted by it.
- If you must bring food with you when driving, store it in your back seat or the boot of your vehicle so that grabbing a snack on the freeway isn’t an option.
- Plan your rest stops on the long drive - you and your passengers need a comfort, nutritional and hydration break.
- You also need some rest for your mind and focus with a break away from the road.
- If you want to stay hydrated while driving, the NHTSA recommends choosing a slim travel bottle with an easy-open lid.
We need to extend the increasing stigma behind texting while driving to all forms of distractions. Eating while driving is not worth endangering yourself or others. Eating while driving could end up being your last supper!