Monday, July 12, 2010

Drive-Thru Distractions

Contributed by Norm Nyhuis, Trainer, Evergreen Safety Council
An online edition of a major newspaper recent cited a study they stated was conducted by NHTSA claiming, “80% of all car accidents and 65% of near misses are caused by distracted drivers more focused on their burgers than the road.” A claim that a single source is a cause of 4 of 5 – of any kind of event – bears further investigation. Perhaps one of you kind readers can find this study, but after a frustrating session searching the NHTSA, and other government sponsored websites, I simply couldn’t find the study referenced. Though, the time spent was not without its reward; following are some valid points, regarding our driving distractions.
  • Distracted driving is any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.
  • All driving distractions fall under one of three categories:
  1. Visual: taking your eyes off the road,
  2. Manual: taking your hands off the steering wheel, and
  3. Cognitive: taking your mind off what you are doing – safely driving your vehicle.

Use a mobile phone or texting, or programming a navigation device involves all three! But, that’s a topic for another post. Regarding eating and drinking while driving; let’s examine how each of the categories is involved.

  • Food looks GOOD. All of us enjoy the pleasure and appeal of our favorite foods. Some foods are really hard to resist, and being hungry doesn’t help. This is definitely a visual distraction. If your vehicle is equipped with cup holders or a tray or bin of some sort, where you can place the ‘burger, bag of ‘fries or whatever; you need to look for it again to firmly grasp it, so you spill it while attempting to take another bite.
  • Add to that the necessity of un-wrapping the typical fare from a drive-through window and your attention is further held on the task – NOT the task of driving. Definitely a manual distraction. If your vehicle is equipped with a manual transmission, the task of shifting requires at least one hand on the shift lever. Now if you also want to adjust the radio or CD player, take a drink of that soda or cup of coffee, while attempting to locate that “run-away” French fry that is somewhere on your car seat . . . well that rivals the best of circus juggling acts.
  • Most of us enjoy eating. It tastes good, it smells good, the texture of the food is pleasing to the palette. Part of that enjoyment comes from our mental attention to these physical stimuli. Add to this the typical random thoughts about work, home, the economy, whether the rain will hurt the rhubarb, and it’s a wonder that any part of our conscious thought is left over to deal with the act of guiding a ton of steel down the roadway with who knows how many other drivers that are equally as distracted?

Lastly, think about the food you typically can obtain at a drive-through window: much of it is slippery. Condiments tend to drip out of sandwiches, dill pickles are accomplished escape artists, and tacos are the only food I know of that is designed to disassemble itself just by raising it to your mouth.

Take a tip from your friends at ESC: driving requires your full attention, don’t make the task even harder by limiting the amount of your concentration that is devoted to driving by attempting to eat, drink, and drive.


  1. National Drive-Thru Day is July 24th - Celebrate an American tradition, but park the car in the lot or in a nice spot with a view and then enjoy your meal.

  2. Considering the explosion in the number of Drive Through Windows over the last 20 years, at just about every possible food place... it is a culture shift that seems to be a blind spot for most people. Perhaps getting one of the major chains to push the idea of parking the car to eat, then getting the media to focus on it, could get traction!

    It is funny that a person can get a ticket for talking on their phone but holding a drippy burger doesn't get them stopped. This same person may complain about drunk drivers but not think twice as they search for a napkin while driving!

    Getting people to think... that is the real trick.

  3. Thanks for the comment. Your observation about the proliferation of drive-thru windows is very accurate! Food service is the only place where the expectation is to actually (and usually immediately) interact with the items you picked up. At a drive through bank window you conclude the transaction – withdrawal or deposit - before you get back on the road. Same for a drive through dry cleaners; you either drop off or pick up your clothes to be cleaned. Law enforcement has the requirement to “build a case” for their issuing of a citation to a driver on the totality of the driving behaviors they observe; weaving in or across adjacent lanes, failure to maintain a steady rate of speed, relative to the other traffic, and similar examples of unsafe driving, are all observations an officer will use to make the decision to “pull over” a vehicle. Regardless of the cause of the inattention, eating, drinking, or spilling food, distraction by passengers, or other conditions in the vehicle, which results in observed erratic driving behavior, any can lead to a citation. The big difference is that the act of actually talking on a hand-held device has been identified in the law as an infraction, and the observation of this behavior is all that’s needed for law enforcement to issue a citation. Thanks again and have a safe day!


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