Eating while driving: How distracting is it?

A recent routine traffic stop in Georgia, conducted because the police officer considered the driver to be in violation of the state's distracted driving law, normally would not have made national news. However, it ended up getting a lot of attention after the driver said he had been pulled over because he was eating a hamburger.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a man was cited in Cobb County for "eating while driving." The police officer said he had observed the driver munching on the burger for two miles before stopping him, and that he was violating the state's distracted driving law. This states that motorists "shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle."

The hapless driver in Georgia is far from alone in his behavior. When Exxon Mobil polled 1,000 drivers recently, it found that 70 percent eat while driving and 83 percent drink beverages while on the road.

Even if this behavior has become common, it is considered to be distracted driving.

Distraction.gov, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's official Web site on the topic, lists eating or drinking as a form of distracted driving alongside behaviors such as texting, reading, adjusting the stereo, talking to passengers, or using a cell phone.

Some behaviors are considered to be more distracting than others. An activity is considered to be manually distracting if it occupies the driver's hands, visually distracting if it takes their eyes away from the road, and cognitively distracted if it impedes a driver's attention to the road.

In this way, texting while driving is considered one of the most dangerous forms of distracted driving because it affects a driver's attention in all three areas. By contrast, talking to a passenger is likely to involve cognitive distraction alone.

The organization Decide to Drive, sponsored by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says that eating while driving usually involves one or more of these kinds of distraction. Manual distraction is the most prevalent, as a driver needs to take at least one hand off the wheel to hold the food or drink. They might try to handle napkins, cup lids, or other items as well.

In addition, food mishaps can easily take your attention away from the road. Training Wheels Driving School, a New Jersey business, says spilling hot coffee on your lap is sure to distract you. It also says that drivers are inclined to clean up spills or dripping material from messy meals, diverting their focus to the interior of the car.

That was the case in a 2012 accident in which a driver plowed into two parked cars in Antelope, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, the driver was eating a taco and was looking at his lap to brush away crumbs when the accident occurred.

Not long before the Georgia incident, another food-related crash occurred elsewhere in the country. According to WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, an SUV driver was "distracted while eating" and collided with another vehicle.

As with other forms of distracted driving, eating while driving can increase a driver's chances of getting into an accident. Brown & Brown, a law firm in St. Louis, Missouri, says eating while driving can prevent a person from noticing the changing situation on the road and slow down their reaction time.

Decide to Drive says two studies support this idea. Research by the driver risk management company Lytx found that drivers who eat or drink while driving are 3.6 times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who pay attention to the road. Meanwhile, the NHTSA has estimated that this behavior increases the likelihood of an accident by 80 percent and that 65 percent of "near-misses" are caused by drivers who are eating or drinking.

Connecticut does not explicitly forbid eating while driving. However, the distracted driving law is similar to Georgia's, saying that drivers shouldn't "engage in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle that interferes with its safe operation on a highway."

A 2000 report by the Office of Legislative Research responded to inquiries about whether this behavior could be considered reckless driving. The conclusion was that eating while driving did not automatically rise to level of recklessness, but that the "totality of circumstances" would have to be considered in deciding whether to charge someone with a driving violation.

The state driver's manual discourages eating while driving, including it in a list of distracting behaviors. It recommends that drivers leave early to allow time to stop for a meal.

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