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It’s tempting if you’re in a hurry. It’s something that most people have done at one point or another. But eating is a dangerous distraction while you’re driving.

Key Takeaways

  • Eating and drinking while driving is one of the top causes of driver distraction.
  • Drinking beverages, texting, smoking, putting on makeup, shaving, reading a newspaper, etc., are common driving distractions.
  • Coffee, soup, tacos, hamburgers, etc., are some distracting and dangerous food items to consume while driving.
  • Experts recommend drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road while driving.

The term “distracted driving” refers to anything that takes your eyes, hands or mind away from driving. Eating while driving 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 (NHTSA). The most recent study, released by NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2006, reported that 80 percent of all the nation’s car crashes involved some type of driver distraction, with “eating on the run” listed as one of the many distractions that plague motorists today.

“Most car accidents are caused by drivers not paying attention,” says Eric Bolton, a NHTSA spokesperson.

NHTSA doesn’t track specific food-related distractions, but it does track general distractions.

Besides food, common distractions include: outside accidents, adjusting the radio, children, pets, objects moving in the vehicle, drinking beverages, using a cell phone or texting, smoking, putting on makeup, shaving, reading a newspaper, etc.

According to NHTSA, “distraction was most likely to be involved in rear-end collisions in which the lead vehicle was stopped, and in single-vehicle crashes.” What makes distraction such a problem is the confluence 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.

Distracting food

Hagerty Classic Insurance, a provider of classic-car insurance, began to look more closely at this issue after a DMV check on an insurance applicant turned up a “restraining order” against anything edible within his reach while driving. The man apparently had several previous accidents related to food on his driving record.

In addition, Hagerty President McKeel Hagerty says his company often receives claims for damage to the interior of classic cars caused by food. “It’s tough to replace original wool carpets or particular colors of leather seats,” he says.

In looking at the insurer’s history of claims, Hagerty found that most drivers had 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, but didn’t necessarily make them more likely to pull off the road to deal with the mess.

One driver had so many food-related accidents he was restricted from driving with food within reach.

“It really seems it’s more the spill than the eating,” says Hagerty. “Anything that drips is probably not a good idea.” Hagerty and his staff did a study of their own to see which foods are the worst offenders, and although Hagerty says he ruined a few shirts in the process, they found some interesting information.

Coffee is the top offender because of its tendency to spill. Even in cups with travel lids, somehow the liquid finds its way out of the opening when you drive over a bump, says Hagerty. “I’ve certainly spilled my share of coffee while I’m driving, and it’s not when I’m trying to drink, it’s when I hit bumps in the road.” And if the stain on your clothes isn’t bad enough, the high temperature of most coffees can cause serious burns and distract drivers who are trying to drive while in pain.

The top 10 food offenders in a car are:

  1. Coffee: It always finds a way out of the cup.
  2. Hot soup: Many people drink it like coffee and run the same risks.
  3. Tacos: “A food that can disassemble itself without much help, leaving your car looking like a salad bar,” says Hagerty.
  4. Chili: The potential for drips and slops down the front of clothing is significant.
  5. Hamburgers: From the grease of the burger to ketchup and mustard, it could all end up on your hands, your clothes, and the steering wheel.
  6. Barbecued food: The same issue arises for barbecued foods as for hamburgers. The sauce may be great, but if you have to lick your fingers, the sauce will end up on whatever you touch.
  7. Fried chicken: Another food that leaves you with greasy hands, which means constantly wiping them on something, even if it’s your shirt. It also makes the steering wheel greasy.
  8. Jelly or cream-filled donuts: Has anyone eaten a jelly donut without some of the center oozing out? Raspberry jelly can be difficult at best to remove from material.
  9. Soft drinks: Not only are they subject to spills, but also the carbonated kind can fizz as you’re drinking if you make sudden movements, and most of us remember cola fizz in the nose from childhood. It isn’t any more pleasant now.
  10. 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 off the steering wheel you’re likely to end up swerving.

Most insurance companies don’t track specific information on eating and driving. It’s too difficult to pin down the exact cause of accidents and separate the various distractions such as cell phone use, talking to passengers, reading the newspaper and eating — all of which drivers engage in while also trying to operate a two-ton piece of machinery.

If you’re eating and reach to answer your cell phone, it’s easy to forget you’re also driving.

Hagerty found that driving a car with a stick shift while eating can double the potential for an accident, since one hand is holding food and the other hand is shifting. That leaves no hands for steering, says Hagerty. “When the phone rings, the driving distraction increases significantly and, in a rush to answer, drivers forget they’re driving,” he says.

Here are some safety tips for safe driving:

  • Keep your eyes on the road.
  • Review maps before hitting the road.
  • Do your personal grooming at home.
  • Use the memory dial feature on your cell phone whenever possible.
  • Keep your hands on the wheel.
  • Use preset radio stations.
  • Don’t try to retrieve items that fall to the floor.
  • Avoid smoking, eating and drinking while driving.
  • Avoid taking calls while driving, or use a hands-free device.
  • Teach your children the importance of good behavior in cars.
  • Keep your mind on the ride.
  • Ask a passenger to serve as your “co-pilot.”
  • Avoid stressful/emotional/confrontational conversations either with a passenger or on your cell phone.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California lists 14 items as major causes of driver distraction. Eating and drinking is one of them.

“From breakfast burritos to burgers and fries, eating on the run has turned into an everyday part of our lives,” its report says. “Eating while driving is not only dangerous, it’s messy and . . . means you’re not watching the road.” The fast food industry allows for eating on the go, with small compact food items that allow for quick consumption. Automobile makers understand the nature of the “on-the-go” lifestyle and have condoned such behavior by making multiple cup holders standard in every vehicle.

The Berkeley Lab offers the following tips for drivers tempted to eat and drive:

  • Leave a bit early to allow yourself time to stop and eat.
  • If you’re traveling with someone, take turns eating and driving.

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Michelle Megna


Michelle, the former editorial director, insurance, at QuinStreet, is a writer, editor and expert on car insurance and personal finance. Prior to joining QuinStreet, she reported and edited articles on technology, lifestyle, education and government for magazines, websites and major newspapers, including the New York Daily News.