Eating while driving more dangerous than drunk driving

UK research shows that eating and drinking when driving carries more risk than drunk driving.

A recent UK study conducted by the University of Leeds on behalf of Esure insurance has found that eating and driving carries more risk than using a phone or even drunk driving.

The paper, titled "˜Two Hands Better Than One,' examined driver reaction times under controlled conditions using a driving simulator. The researchers found that driver reactions increased by 44 percent if they were eating when behind the wheel. While not as pronounced in effect, drinking from a bottle or can can also increased reaction times by around 22 percent. By comparison, texting when driving increases reaction times by 37 percent, while a 0.08 blood alcohol level increases reaction times by 12.5 percent.

Drivers were also less likely to maintain proper lane control when either eating or drinking. When consuming a drink while driving, drivers were 18 percent more likely to have to make steering corrections to stay properly within their lane. The researchers suggested that the reason drivers reaction times increased when either eating or drinking had to do with cognitive load -- the additional visual demands required to unwrap food or tip a bottle up to drink from it diverted attention from the driving task.

"˜It is widely accepted that the distraction of talking on a hand-held mobile phone may increase accident risk - hence the introduction of legislation in the UK, said Prof. Samantha Jamson from the University of Leeds. "˜Other activities that involve taking one hand off the wheel, such as eating or drinking, may also cause distraction, particularly when drivers take their eyes off the road in order to reach for or unwrap items,'"¨she added.

Further, the study also examined driver attitudes to driving with one hand on the wheel. While most agreed that it was probably a dangerous thing to do, 17 percent believed that it was acceptable while 47 percent admitted to driving with only one hand on the wheel regularly. Esure says that it also found that two million UK drivers had either had a crash or a near-miss while driving one-handed.

While the NHTSA has rightly given heavy emphasis to the dangers of using a cellphone when driving, we are learning all the time that driver distraction is a complex and challenging issue. The rise of in-vehicle distractions is also on the increase with rise of the connected vehicle and a generation of drivers referred to as "˜digital natives.' Driving requires concentration, but how many of us are able to concentrate 100 percent of the time when in control of a vehicle at the best of times?