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Drinking $5 Coffee or Eating a Burger Might Be More Dangerous Than Texting While Driving


July 14, 2019

Text messaging while driving has become a widely acknowledged threat to highway safety.  An April 2019 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disclosed that 2,935 people died in distracted driving accidents in 2017, which amounted to nine percent of all roadway fatalities.  While cell phone use constitutes the distraction that has drawn the most attention from lawmakers, public safety experts, and the media, these portable electronic devices accounted for only 14 percent of all driving distraction-related fatalities.  Although this is a significant number of cell phone-related fatalities, the consumption of fast food, snacks, and vanilla lattes might be just as dangerous when similarities between these distractions are considered.

Multiple Levels of Distraction

Cell phone use involves multiple levels of distraction, which often is cited as the reason that texting behind the wheel is so dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that texting while operating a vehicle involves three levels of distraction: (1) manual, (2) visual, and (3) mental.

  • Manual DistractionsThese types of distractions cause drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel (e.g. reaching for objects, adjusting the AC or radio, cleaning up a spilled liquid).
  • Visual Distractions: These distractions involve a motorist’s eyes being diverted from the road (e.g. rubbernecking at accidents, reading the newspaper, sending a text message).
  • Mental Distractions: This type of distraction causes a driver to take his or her mind off driving (e.g. carrying on a conversation with a passenger, daydreaming).

Like texting and driving, eating and drinking while driving involves all three levels of distraction.  Holding drinks and food, manipulating wrappers, cleaning off sauces or grease that drips on clothes, or cleaning up a spilled beverage are common tasks associated with consuming food or beverages in a vehicle.  These activities also require the use of a driver’s eyes, concentration, and hands.   

Prevalence of Distraction

Because cell phones have inundated the U.S. population, their widespread ownership and use has been pointed to as another reason cell phone distractions are such a threat.  According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, almost half of all drivers have said they have read or sent a text message while driving. While many drivers engage in this form of distracted driving, nearly all drivers have probably ordered food or a latte at a drive thru.  Although a dearth of statistical studies exists regarding the number of people that eat and drink in their car, the number probably exceeds 50 percent by a significant margin.  

Length of Distraction

Although all cell phone use can be distracting, texting is considered especially dangerous because drivers divert their attention, eyes and, mental focus from driving for relatively long periods of time.  A motor vehicle travels the length of a football field in the time it takes to read or send a text according to the NHTSA.  Although the risk created by traveling this distance while essentially blindfolded would seem obvious, the length of time it takes to wipe up a spilled beverage or clean spilled sauces on a sandwich or burger off your clothes or upholstery could easily exceed five seconds.  Both distracted driving and distracted eating/drinking lead to lengthy periods where drivers multi-task.

The Difference in Attitude Toward Texting and Eating/Drinking While Driving

Many drivers who now recognize the danger associated with texting and driving do not give a second thought to drinking their morning coffee or eating lunch while commuting in their car.  Respondents in a survey conducted by the NHTSA found that 86 percent or respondents would feel very unsafe if they were a passenger in a car where a driver was sending a text while 81 percent indicated the same thing about a driver reading a text. This shift in attitudes toward texting and driving can be attributed to distracted driving laws, media coverage, public service campaigns, and other efforts to educate motorists.  However, attitudes toward multi-tasking after visiting a drive thru might not change until similar attention is focused on this dangerous driving activity.  The objective of this article is not to minimize the danger posed by texting and driving.  Rather, we hope that people recognize that other less discussed forms of inattention behind the wheel might pose a comparable safety threat.

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Sources: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812700 and https://www.pewinternet.org/2010/06/18/adults-and-cell-phone-distractions/

Category: Auto Accidents

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