Food For Thought (But Not While You're Driving)

New research claims that eating while driving can be as potentially risky as using a hand held mobile phone at the wheel.

At first glance, this seems odd. Granted, many drivers are at least aware of the problems associated with mobile phones while driving, even if they continue to ignore them. But surely a natural, everyday act such as eating an apple doesn’t need to be potentially risky - or does it?

Brunel University put 26 participants in a simulator on an urban route, once without eating and once while eating from a bag of wrapped sweets or drinking water.

The simulator would show a pedestrian suddenly stepping into the road and then measure the drivers' responses. Although participants tended to slow down while unwrapping the sweet or raising the bottle, researchers found that they were still twice as likely to hit the pedestrian.

It is probably using the brain to do something else as well as driving that causes the difficulty: tipping the bottle, trying to see around it and not spilling the contents is a complex set of judgements adding to the driver’s workload.

There is of course no legislation specifically preventing eating or drinking while driving. Yet many cars these days come equipped with cup-holders right by the driver's seat, a design presumably to make it easier to drink while driving.

Drinking a hot beverage is far worse, when you think about it. A spill that burns causes pain and could produce an involuntary action by the driver. There have been high profile cases of police prosecutions of drivers sipping from bottles or eating apples.

The IAM advice is to avoid drinking or eating while you are driving as both are needless distractions. On a long journey, it is good to take a break after two hours and you can use that rest to have a drink. The Highway Code also advises against distractions such as eating or drinking.

But as ever, common sense is the key: putting a mint in your mouth before you start driving, for example, is unlikely to cause a potential problem. But leaning over to find a packet of mints buried somewhere in your glovebox, then attempting to unwrap them with one hand is quite a different (and a potentially dangerous) scenario.

27 August 2006 Staff
 

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