Eating while driving is clearly a bad idea. Just about everybody knows this.
But just about everybody still does it.
"I realize it can be a problem, but I do it anyway," sighs Sala Reyes, a 21-year-old California college student. "I do it when I don't have time but need to eat. I do try to be careful, though."
Caution is a primary ingredient in 55-mph cuisine. If your passenger seat is your dinner table, you give up giant burgers and go for something with less mayonnaise-on-shirt potential. Notice the distinct lack of drive-through spaghetti.
Thus, good road food is really an exercise in drip control:
- It must be portable from wrapper to mouth in one hand.
- Finger foods must come in bite size. Trail mix invariably becomes carpet mix.
- Larger items must be stout enough to survive repeated bites without crumbling. Doughnuts are road food. Muffins are not.
- Lettuce and tomato, bad. Shredded lettuce, worse.
We tapped some experts -- Southern Californians -- to find out their drive-through favorites. And some other experts -- the safety kind -- to find out just how dangerous road food really is.
You shouldn't, but if you must…
Do you really want to pay an accident surcharge because a taco crumbled into your lap?
Even a fender-bender will probably raise your car insurance rates as much as 10 percent ; and someone with a consistently poor driving record could face a 40 percent hike, according to Consumer Reports. With the national average for a policy about $1,400 a year, that could mean paying anywhere from $140 to $560 more. ("Accident forgiveness" provisions in your policy -- the ones that promise no penalty for fender-benders like these -- typically come at a premium price.)
California drivers know all about road food and high insurance rates. Here are the top driver-friendly fast foods as suggested by recent visitors to Taco Bell, McDonald's, Carl's Jr. and Burger King in Southern California:
- Burritos. They're easy to handle with low drip potential. Reyes prefers the cheaper, smaller ones at Taco Bell and Del Taco. "I like [Taco Bell's] chicken burrito, the one that's about a dollar. I get two of them," she says. "They're good and small enough to fit in your hand. The bean ones [at Del Taco] are also pretty good. Avoid [the big, expensive ones] -- too much stuff to fall out."
- 'Value menu' sandwiches. They're small enough to hold easily and don't have much to spill on a shirt or blouse. The opposite of huge, more costly burgers -- think Carl's Jr.'s "Original Six Dollar Burger" -- which are as messy as they come. "The cheap ones are barely edible, but they're a breeze for a fast snack," says Caroline Masters, a 28-year-old nursing therapist. "If I'm in a hurry and really hungry, I'll pick one up on the way. What I really like are the salads, but that would be impossible."
- Wraps. Much like a burrito, these offerings from McDonald's are self-contained and relatively convenient. "They're delicious and fairly healthy" for a fast food, says Steve Hope, a 29-year-old unemployed construction worker. "They're easy to eat in my truck. … They don't require a lot of napkins."
- Finger foods such as fries, onion rings, fried zucchini and chicken nuggets. They're greasy and require frequent napkin-to-hand work, but also reasonably trouble-free when plunking and popping from containers. "The zucchini at Carl's Jr. [is] the best, but forget the dipping sauces," says Mark Jefferson, a 38-year-old security professional. "The fries at McDonald's are the best, not too sticky. But no ketchup unless you want some on your shirt."
- Smoothies. Few people think of them as a full meal, but they can be. Not a hassle to carry and you can always use your car's beverage holder. "I often have a fruit smoothie [for lunch] anyway, so driving with one works for me,' says Sheri Nomura, a 24-year-old clothing saleswoman."I'd never try to eat a big meal, but a filling drink seems reasonably OK."
The editors at Consumer Reports have a few healthier suggestions: Beef jerky, Combos pretzels and bagels.
A recipe for disaster, or at least a big mess
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says distracted driving is responsible for about one out of every four accidents. That means more than 1.5 million collisions a year and 4,300 crashes daily, according to the NHTSA's most recent figures.
Texting and talking on a cell phone are at the top, but eating ranks high as an accident-causer, cited in about 6 percent of distracted-driving crashes.
"Distracted driving is dangerous and comes in many forms," warns NHTSA spokesperson Karen Aldana. "Every time you take your eyes off the road, and your hands off the wheel, for any purpose -- even for just a few seconds -- you put your life, and the lives of others, at serious risk."
The right foods might pose much less of a threat to your upholstery and car insurance than other forms of distraction, one expert says.
Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, has studied eating while driving and believes it's not as risky as some may think. By placing video cameras in cars and recording motorists' habits over many months, he and his research team have found that most drivers can handle "easy items like hamburgers and sandwiches and the like" without greatly affecting driving ability.
"Any distraction creates at least a minor risk," Dingus says, "but eating and driving is not a big deal, as long as you don't use utensils during the eating."
Consuming food ranks "near the bottom" of the hazard list, he notes, placing it "way below texting, reading, putting on makeup and similar distractions."
Even so, the fast-food chains, not usually motivated to caution against eating at any time, tell driving customers to think twice.
"Regarding eating while driving, safety should be the first and foremost concern for drivers," says Rob Poetsch, a spokesperson for Taco Bell. "And we encourage people to make responsible decisions when eating in their cars."
That was echoed by Sue Hensley, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, which represents the fast-food industry. "We feel strongly that safety should be the very first priority," Hensley says, She added that "portability," making it easier for customers to access and move fast foods, is always a focus when "engineering and re-engineering [menu] items. It's all about convenience."