Making a meal of driving

It's an offence to eat on the move - and rightly so. says Elizabeth Skerritt
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Indy Lifestyle Online

OK, so being slightly hungover and very tired is hardly the state in which to be driving a car. Lucky I wasn't, then. As I discovered, however, it isn't ideal when executing emergency stops in a driving simulator, either. Why, you might ask, was I sitting in one of these at a British School of Motoring centre at 9am on a Friday morning? Why, I was asking myself, hadn't I headed home earlier the night before?

The answer is that I was to be a guinea pig in an experiment to find out precisely how much damage you can do to your driving if you try to eat and drive. Ever since it hit the headlines that the police spent £10,000 to chase down Sarah McCaffrey in a helicopter and then fined her for eating an apple behind the wheel, it has been a talking point. Only now, it seems, are we beginning to realise that munching on the move is against the law.

There is a good deal of ignorance about the situation. A survey by RAC Auto Windscreens found that fewer than 30 per cent of UK drivers realise that it is an offence to eat at the wheel - yet it came top of their list of driving distractions. Eating, drinking or map reading are offences covered by the careless driving section of the 1988 Road Traffic Act.

Courtesy of a company called Culinaire, which makes convenience foods and deliberately designs them not to fit in any cup holders, to discourage "eat-driving", I was allowed the opportunity to find out just how hazardous this messy habit is. The idea was to test what impact, if any, being diverted by opening packets of crisps, sandwiches and drinking coffee would have on my reaction times. Hence I found myself in a driving simulator.

As you might expect, the results showed that concentrating on my sandwiches slowed me considerably. Travelling at 20mph, the emergency stop took 0.884 seconds, as opposed to 0.750 seconds with both hands on the wheel and an empty mouth. The equivalent figures for 40mph were 0.800 seconds vs 0.617 and, at 60mph, 1.050 seconds against 0.600. Case closed. Plus, munching all those BLTs had made me feel quite queasy.

Rob Maynard, a spokesman for the BSM, explains what these tiny differences in reaction times mean in the real world. At 60mph, for example, I would have stopped 13 yards, or 12 metres later than if I had been driving properly, that is undistracted by food. As he says that is "significant when it is down to a lack of concentration affecting thinking time". It could be the difference between life and death in a collision.

A break for coffee or a coke at a service station can help to keep you awake. Tiredness, as the road safety campaigners say, kills. But it is obviously not clever to consume your drink on the move so that any caffeine you manage to ingest is at the expense of keeping control of the wheel. Not to mention the nasty stains that a spillage will leave on your smart outfit.

Much the same arguments apply to using a hand-held mobile phone, but, despite the huge amounts of publicity surrounding this bad habit, there are still plenty of offenders on the road.

It seems unlikely that the police can justify the kind of resources it would take to crack down on eating, or using a phone, while driving, but you can still be caught, and increased fines should certainly make you think twice about it.

At bottom, the fact remains that eating and driving at the same time can be plain dangerous - and who wants their motorway sarnie and coke to be their last supper?

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