Food for Thought: How Risky is Eating While Driving?

Study Explores How To-Go Treats Tamper with Drivers' Attention

Many of us simply don't have the time to eat a sit-down breakfast each morning or return home every night for long meals at the dinner table. Americans eat a significant number of meals on the move.

Eating and drinking while operating a vehicle is such a common practice in the U.S., that 70% of drivers in a recent survey admitted to regularly eating while driving, and 83% of the drivers revealed that they usually drink a beverage behind the wheel. Taking our meals on our travels is so common that we may not even realize how it impacts our driving ability.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) study, The Impact of Driver Inattention on Near-Crash/Crash Risk, explores how tasks that may seem insignificant to motorists (e.g. eating and drinking) could divert drivers' attention and potentially cause car accidents.

Inside the Study

According to the study, inattentive driving contributes to over 45% of all motor vehicle accidents. The study found participants to be inattentive when they attempted to engage in "secondary tasks" while driving. These secondary, non-driving-related, tasks are actions one does in the car that require a motorist to divert their full attention from the driving task at hand.

Many of us are familiar with the substantial effect that the secondary task of operating a cell phone has on our driving ability. But the study identified another secondary task, that hasn't received as much media attention, as a potential risk-factor to drivers: eating and drinking while driving.

Eating and Drinking: A Cognitive, Manual, and Visual Distraction

Eating and drinking while driving causes a similar strain on a driver's attention as does using a cell phone because both activities cause cognitive, manual and visual distractions. Eating in our cars doesn't just involve putting food in our mouths—it involves manipulating packaging, inserting straws, and avoiding spills.

These actions aren't inherently dangerous by themselves, but a driver's ability to process new information becomes much less efficient when additional demands require their attention. Someone who has just spilled a hot beverage on themselves may not be able to react as quickly to an unexpected hazard in the road.

Are Eating or Drinking Certain Foods Worse Than Others?

How Risky is Eating While Driving?

The study went on further to identify the types of car snacks that require the most attention. Eating a Gogurt or a stick of beef jerky likely won't pose the same driving risk as eating a piece of pizza or a rack of ribs.

The most risky foods to eat behind the wheel:

  1. Hot beverages and liquids – hot coffee, tea, and soup top the list of dangerous driving foods. These foods won't just stain your clothes if spilled, they can also cause severe burns.
  2. Messy foods — foods like tacos, sandwiches, and pizza that have many different parts can easily fall apart creating a chaotic situation that drivers may try to clean up while still on their commutes.
  3. Drinks without lids — there's a reason they created the to-go mug. Taking a regular kitchen cup in the car with you is a recipe for disaster.
  4. Greasy and salty foods — a hamburger and fries is the quintessential drive-thru order, but beware. Greasy foods will inevitably cause a driver to go searching for napkins and can make the steering wheel slippery.

Avoid the Distraction

Cruising through the drive-thru when you're swamped for time is convenient, but try to wait until you've reached your destination to enjoy your meal. If you must eat behind the wheel, avoid the four riskiest types of car foods and choose a less complicated car snack.

Unlike laws restricting cell phone use while driving, no laws exist that prevent you from eating and drinking while driving. However, just because an activity is legal, doesn't mean that it's safe. If a distracted driver ever injures you, contact our law firm for a free consultation. We're available around the clock.

“The Impact of Driver Inattention on Near-Crash/Crash Risk: An Analysis Using the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study Data.” The National

Highway Traffic Safety Administration. August 4, 2015.

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