Eating while driving is more dangerous than you thought

Texting while driving
Texting is the number one publicised driver distraction, but new research suggests eating while driving is right up there.

Texting on a mobile phone is the number one publicised driver distraction. What’s the everyday practice vying to take over the top spot?

Driver distraction has been identified as a cause of approximately one quarter of car crashes according to international and Australian data. Unsurprisingly to most people, the number one publicised driver distraction is texting on a mobile phone.

But there is another everyday practice vying for that number one position. A study by researchers from the Griffith Health Institute on the Gold Coast, Queensland has found there is another driver distraction that is just as dangerous as sending text messages.

And you might be surprised by the finding.

It’s eating while driving.

On the road in Australia, it wouldn't be unusual to see a person behind the wheel eating a burger while driving. We’ve all seen that serious face while they are being cautious not to spill the sauce on their shorts. You might have even been the one with that face. When people talk about eating while driving, the debate is often about the legality rather than the risk factors. 

The legality came to light in a recent case in Georgia in the US, where a man was fined for eating a cheeseburger while driving. The driver joked perhaps he was enjoying the burger too much – cue that face – and the driver’s attorney regarded the charge as a “first for me.”

He was later vindicated in early February. One of the reasons cited was there hadn't been an accident. 

Meanwhile, last year Marlon King, an ex-Premier League footballer, was jailed in Nottingham, UK for 18 months for dangerous driving. His offence? Causing a three car pile-up while he was driving and eating an ice cream.

The driving study completed by researchers at the Griffith Health Institute required male and female participants to operate a driving simulator while attempting three different tasks in comparison to their baseline (no distraction) test drive. The tasks while driving were drinking water only, drinking water and eating a six inch Subway sandwich and drinking water and sending text messages.

Previous research has found eating caused a minimal impact on driver performance. The issue with one previous study was the use of a packet of sweets as the “food”. The difference for the Griffith Health Institute study is it aimed to use food and drink comparable to what is available for consumption from fast food outlets, with food that requires more concentration to limit spillages.

“The results basically indicate that the trials involving texting or eating when driving both caused about the same amount of decrement to driving performance”, said lead researcher on the project Dr Chris Irwin, from Griffith Health Institute.

Participants were also asked what they thought was the most difficult task in the study. Dr Irwin advised that almost all participants (23 out of 28) said the texting task was the most difficult, with only five identifying the eating task to be the most difficult.

“Clearly they don't believe this based on their driving performance - because they were both just as bad, so perhaps they said it was the most difficult because texting and driving has received a lot of media attention and eating is often perceived as a behaviour that is ok to do when driving a car”, Dr Irwin said.

With texting on a mobile phone holding the number one spot for driver distraction, the Australian Road Rules takes a tough stance on handheld mobile phone usage while driving. It is illegal and includes a fine and loss of demerit points.

This tough stance has meant there are a number of state based campaigns highlighting the importance of not using a handheld mobile phone while driving, among the promotion of a range of other safe driving initiatives, including drink driving and fatigue.

Distraction is broadly covered in the safety initiatives with eating while driving coming under that banner. A Transport and Main Roads spokesperson advised, “There are no rules that prohibit eating while driving, but distracted drivers are a danger to themselves and other road users. If eating while driving interferes with a driver’s control of the vehicle, the driver may be committing an offence depending on the circumstances.”

Centre for Road Safety General Manager, Marg Prendergast confirmed, “It’s not illegal to eat while you’re behind the wheel, however it is illegal not to have proper control of your vehicle.”

“If a driver is detected by police for not controlling their vehicle properly, they will be subject to a $415 fine and three demerit points in accordance with the NSW Road Rules,” she said.

While the driver involved in the cheeseburger incident was cleared as there was no accident, this is similar in Australia. “Offences are assessed on a case-by-case basis, including whether an incident occurred”, confirmed a Transport and Main Roads spokesperson.

So what about drinking non-alcoholic beverages while driving? When the participants drank bottled water only while driving, the results showed there was no difference to the baseline test. “We think that it is the complexity of the task and the mental demand required to eat or text (higher demand tasks) compared to the low demand needed to do a task like drink water from a bottle,” Dr Irwin explained.

The study also showed there was no difference between the male and female participants for the study with Dr Irwin confirming distraction has bad effects for everyone, regardless of gender.

A recommendation arising based on the study findings is a possible requirement for an increase in public health messages raising awareness of dangers whilst eating and driving.