Eating at the wheel doubles accident rates

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The Independent Online

New research shows that drivers are nearly twice as likely to be taken by surprise if a pedestrian walks in front of their car when they are snacking at the wheel.

The research will bolster calls for eating while driving to be made illegal. At present, it is not against the law to eat or drink while driving, but the police can bring charges if they consider drivers are not in full control of their vehicle while eating.

In what is described as the first study of its kind, drivers used Brunel University's driving simulator while enjoying a snack. In simulated emergencies, they crashed 17 times compared to nine when no food or drink was being consumed.

The researchers created a nine-minute urban drive on the simulator. At designated points, shortly after the drivers were told to eat or drink, a pedestrian walked in front of the car, and drivers' reactions were measured.

The researchers said the results show that while drivers may appear able to cope while eating during normal driving, problems come when they are confronted with a sudden increase in the demand for their attention.

"The evidence suggests that the physical demands of eating and drinking while driving can increase the risk of a crash,'' say the researchers in their report, entitled 'Crash dieting: The effects of eating and drinking on driving performance'.

"The results of the present study lend weight to the argument that eating or drinking at the wheel can have detrimental effects on driving safety. Since drivers do not necessarily perceive the risk, they choose not to modify their eating behaviour, and rather rely on adapting their driving. Thus snacking at the wheel appears to have little effect on 'normal' driving which may reinforce the driver's risk perceptions.

"This strategy may be inconsequential during normal driving, but the increased crash risk is realised in the abnormal situation requiring an emergency response, when the increased demands mean drivers are less able to cope.

"Our results suggest that eating and drinking at the wheel is best confined to the service area.''