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Distracted driving covers a broad range of risky behaviors that ultimately diverts a driver’s attention from what he or she should be focusing on: driving. One under-identified distraction is eating or drinking while driving. While a ubiquitous and innocuous act, those who eat or drink while operating a vehicle are putting themselves and other drivers on the road at risk.

Driving while eating or drinking, relative to driving without distraction, increases crash risk about 70%, according to Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The behavior also ranks just below holding a cellphone or talking on a hand-held cellphone when it comes to prevalence of behaviors that distract drivers, according to a study from the IIHS.

“Eating and driving is certainly a distraction just like anything else. Anything that takes your attention off of the road is going to be distracting, so it’s important for people to know that distractions aren’t just limited to cellphones,” said Cicchino.

Distracted Demographics

Drivers between the ages of 40 and 50 were observed to be eating or drinking more than other age groups that were monitored in an IIHS study where drivers were video recorded while driving. This was followed by young adults ages 20 to 30, then teenagers ages 16 to 17, and, lastly, older drivers ages 60 to 70.

IIHS also found that a larger portion of drivers were eating or drinking when they were alone rather than when they were driving with passengers, according to another study where driver distractions were documented by roadside observers in northern Virginia.

Cicchino noted that drivers typically eat and drive earlier in the day.

However, drivers that are involved in distracted driving behaviors tend to restrict the amount of multitasking they do, and may opt for manipulating a cellphone rather than eating or drinking, according to Cicchino.

“It’s pretty hard to be texting and eating and driving all at once. So one thing that is going on with these new technological distractions is that if people are texting, they are probably doing less of some of the other distracting behaviors that have been around a long time,” she said.

Preventing the Accident

Cicchino said that improved vehicle safety technology will curtail the number of distracted-driving-related accidents

“Some vehicles now have technology that will sense that you’re about to rear-end someone and will automatically either brake the car for you or give you a warning to let you know that this is about to happen. And we’ve seen that those have really reduced crashes, they’ve cut rear-end crashes in half. We think this technology is going to play a big role in addressing the distracted driving problem,” she said.

Meanwhile, a New Jersey bill meant to target distracted driving behaviors was announced in August 2016, and is designed to prohibit activity unrelated to operating a vehicle that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle. Cicchino suggested that legislating distracted driving behaviors will ultimately lead to confusion.

“I think when you come to these other kinds of distracting behaviors, it’s even harder for people to know specifically what they’re not supposed to be doing and for law enforcement to be able to know that those specific behaviors are covered under this law,” she said.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Automotive Fleet.

About the author
Andy Lundin

Andy Lundin

Former Senior Editor

Andy Lundin was a senior editor on Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, and Green Fleet.

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