Forget Cell Phones; Coffee Is the Killer

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Do you have a year’s supply of ketchup packets in your glove compartment? Are you greeted at the Taco Bell drive-through window with: “The usual, pal?” Has that new-car smell been replaced by something that could be dubbed eau de deep fryer?

You are not alone. The average American consumes 14 meals a year in the car, up from about nine meals in 1984, according to a recent national survey.

The reason is simple: As drivers spend bigger chunks of each day stuck in traffic, they are forced to make up for lost time. In Southern California, motorists spend the equivalent of about 11 days a year idling in traffic. Something has to give, and it’s often a leisurely sit-down meal.


But if you are a regular dashboard diner, chew on this: Food-related distractions were blamed for 259 accidents in California last year, resulting in three deaths and 104 injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Federally funded studies have concluded that spills, drips, splashes and leaks from in-car meals are responsible for more distraction-related accidents nationwide than cell phones.

In short, that greasy French fry could be a killer even before it reaches your arteries.

The fast-food industry has not overtly encouraged driving with your mouth full, but it has responded to America’s predilection for eating in the car with pita pockets, burrito wraps, flat-bread tacos and other foods that a motorist can grip in one hand while merging into speeding freeway traffic with the other.

One fast-food outlet even offers pancakes on a stick. A popular chicken joint serves its chicken nuggets in a container that fits conveniently into a cup holder. The bowl-shaped lid can be used to hold the dipping sauce. And a taco chain now grates its cheese extra thick to keep it from slipping off even during the most hazardous traffic conditions.

“Portability is the key thing,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a national marketing firm that tracks eating trends. “Everything tied to the car is becoming more important.”

For good reason. More than half of the money that rolls into the $129-billion fast-food industry comes from hungry motorists at the drive-through windows.

Other outlets are trying to cash in on this market. Starbucks now has drive-through windows at 200 of its 5,600 coffee outlets nationwide. Drive-through windows are being tested in Texas by 7-Eleven Corp.


The automobile industry has also recognized the growing eat-in-the-car trend by designing new models with extra large cup holders, fold-out trays and stain-resistant upholstery.

“Everybody is doing bigger and better cup holders,” said Art Garner, a spokesman for American Honda. He noted that Honda’s new sport utility vehicle, the Pilot, features a fold-out armrest for rear-seat passengers that is big enough to accommodate a takeout meal. The armrest includes small cubbyholes, just the right size for condiment containers.

In some of its new SUVs, General Motors offers an electric cup holder that can keep a beverage hot or cold. The device plugs into the cigarette lighter.

Chevrolet recently introduced the new Bel Air convertible with seat-back fold-out trays that resemble the pop-out trays on airliners.

But the fast-food and automobile industries also recognize that eating on the road can be dangerous and can leave companies vulnerable to food-accident lawsuits. Remember the 81-year-old woman who sued McDonald’s after being scalded by hot coffee that she spilled while sitting in her car? For such reasons, the car companies and fast-food purveyors rarely promote products as being convenient for eating on the road.

“We don’t encourage eating while driving,” said a Burger King spokeswoman, Kim Miller. But she noted that most of the chain’s food can be consumed with one hand, including the French toast stick.


And some fast-food outlets send a not-so-subtle message that the portability of their products is suited for meals on the road.

Church’s Chicken sells chicken strips in a round container that fits into most cup holders.

The top flips open to hold the dipping sauce. The carton carries these instructions: “Place box in cup holder, find favorite radio station. Enjoy.”

Eating behind the wheel has become so widespread that Hagerty Classic Insurance, a classic-car insurer in Michigan, released a list of the “Ten Most Dangerous Foods to Eat While Driving.”

The list was dominated by juicy, sticky foods such as chocolate, jelly-filled doughnuts, barbecued meat and chili.

The insurer gave the title of most hazardous driving food to coffee, saying the beverage is usually served at a temperature that, if spilled, can seriously distract a driver.


The company’s study also concluded that most food-related accidents happen in the morning, when motorists are on their way to work and most concerned about keeping their clothes free of stains.

The study also found that the odds of having a food-related accident can double if the vehicle has a manual transmission, since eating, shifting and steering all at once require extra dexterity.

Despite the dangers, some motorists in Southern California--home of the worst traffic in the nation--claim to have developed a finely honed technique for safely maneuvering through traffic while chowing down.

“I drive with my knees while I eat,” Katherine Sheridan, a horse trainer from Los Angeles, said as she prepared to drive away from a Hollywood Jack in the Box with a bag of fries and a soda.

Sheridan said she is so skilled at eating behind the wheel that she rarely worries about the convenience or mess of the food she orders.

Tracy Dennyson, who works in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, also considers herself a pro at dashboard dining. But she tries to stay away from food that requires two hands, utensils or a lot of napkins.


“I get burritos a lot,” she said as she waited at the Jack in the Box drive-through window. “I try not to get salads.”

How often does she eat in the car?

“I’d rather not say. I’m not proud of it,” she said.

But there are those motorists, such as Ari Aquino of Los Angeles, who refuse to eat in the car.

“It’s hard to go to work with food stains all over your clothes,” he said as he idled in the Jack in the Box drive-through lane, waiting to grab some lunch to eat at the office. “Besides, it’s dangerous to eat in the car, isn’t it?”


If you have a question, gripe or story idea related to driving in Southern California, please e-mail


Don’t Eat These and Drive

The top 10 most dangerous foods to eat while driving:

1. Coffee (It is a popular in-car beverage that is served piping hot and can leave unsightly stains.)

2. Hot soup (It is also served hot and is difficult to eat while driving.)

3. Tacos (They tend to fall apart with each bite, sending the contents all over the car.)

4. Chili (Chili-covered foods can drip and spill with the slightest bump in the road.)

5. Hamburgers (Special sauces and greasy meat juices can turn a $5 meal into a $500 auto repair bill.)


6. Barbecued foods (Some finger-licking good foods are best eaten over a sink.)

7. Fried chicken (Drivers often try to clean their grease-covered hands immediately.)

8. Jelly and cream-filled doughnuts (Oozing jelly seems magnetically drawn to a driver’s lap.)

9. Soft drinks (Another popular driving drink that can spill at the slightest miscue.)

10. Chocolate (Sticky and messy, it prompts drivers to try to clean up immediately.)

Source: Hagerty Classic Insurance