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Food as a dangerous distraction

6/20/2013

I'm guilty -- and you probably are too. In this summer travel season and with wheat harvest just days away, many of us will be grabbing meals on the go in our vehicles.

When we eat or drink while driving, we're creating a whole new kind of food safety hazard.

The term "distracted driving" refers to anything that takes your eyes, hands or mind off driving. Eating while you drive is one of the most distracting things you can do, according to several surveys by insurance companies and data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

According to NHTSA, distraction is most likely to be involved in single-vehicle crashes and rear-end collisions in which the lead vehicle was stopped. What makes distraction such a problem is the combination of the distraction, such as eating, and the unexpected occurrence of events on the road, such as a sharp curve or a driver stopped ahead of you.

According to Insure.com, Hagerty Classic Insurance began to look more closely at the hazards of eating and driving after a DMV check on an insurance applicant turned up a restraining order against "anything edible within reach while driving." The man apparently had several previous accidents related to food on his driving record.

Their study found drivers had the most problems in the morning on the way to work, when spills were likely to mar their work attire. That made drivers more anxious to clean up spills while still trying to drive, and didn't necessarily make them more likely to pull off the road to deal with the mess.

"It really seems it's more the spill than the eating," said company president McKeel Hagerty. "Anything that drips is probably not a good idea."

According to the study, the top 10 food offenders in a car are:

* Coffee -- It always finds a way out of the cup.

* Hot soup -- Many people drink it like coffee and run the same risks.

* Tacos -- Their tendency to "shatter and scatter" almost always leaves a mess.

* Chili -- The potential for drips down the front of clothing is significant, not to mention trying to eat with a spoon while driving.

* Hamburgers -- From the grease of the burger to ketchup and mustard, it all could end up on your hands, your clothes and the steering wheel.

* Barbecued food -- The same issue arises for barbecued foods as for hamburgers.

* Fried chicken -- Another food that leaves you with greasy hands, which means constantly wiping them on something. It also makes the steering wheel greasy.

* Jelly- or cream-filled donuts -- Has anyone eaten a jelly donut without some of the center oozing out?

* Soft drinks -- Not only are they subject to spills, but also the carbonation can fizz if you hit a bump as you're drinking.

* Chocolate -- Like greasy foods, chocolate coats the fingers as it melts against the warmth of your skin -- and leaves its mark anywhere you touch. As you try to clean it (and any of the above foods) off the steering wheel, you're likely to end up swerving.

Eating on the run has become an everyday part of our lives. Surveys suggest Americans eat more than 10 percent of all meals in the car; and more than half of all fast food is sold in the drive-through lane. Here are three tips for drivers tempted to eat and drive this summer:

* If you know you'll be stopping for a quick bite on the trip, try to leave a little earlier to allow time to eat away from the car.

* If you pick up food from a drive-through, take a few extra minutes to park in the restaurant lot and eat.

* If you're traveling with someone, take turns eating and driving.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu