Picture of sandwich

Up to a third of drivers admit to eating at the wheel and one in ten confess they have suffered a near miss because they were distracted by food.

Eating at the Wheel, a new survey by road safety charity Brake, together with Direct Line, has found that a third of drivers questioned sometimes eat food behind the wheel. Just over a quarter of people (27%) have unwrapped and eaten the food and a third (33%) admit to eating food someone else has unwrapped for them.

The worst offenders are drivers aged 25-34. More than half (55%) in this age bracket admitted they have unwrapped and then eaten at the wheel, with just under a third of those admitting to doing it at least once every week.

Additionally, one in ten of the drivers who responded said they had been involved in a near-miss because they were distracted by eating food. A near-miss was classed as having to suddenly brake or swerve to avoid a hazard.

Research shows that drivers who eat and drink at the wheel are twice as likely to crash and this risk may be even higher if the food is hot, messy or you have to unwrap yourself. Eating and drinking while driving diverts attention away from the driving task, increasing reaction times by up to 44%, meaning drivers will respond to hazards much more slowly. It also causes physical distraction, as at least one hand is off the wheel holding food or drink.

While it is not against the law to eat while driving it can become a crime if a person’s driving becomes distracted because they are unwrapping food or eating it. Driving without due care and attention or careless driving is a criminal offence, whatever the distraction. The maximum penalty for the offence is a driving ban.

Eating at the wheel case study

Off-duty firefighter and dad of two, Joseph Wilkins was cycling when he was knocked down and killed on a country road near Abingdon in May 2012. The driver was eating a sandwich at the wheel and convicted of causing death by careless driving.

Joe’s partner Nicci Saunders said: “Joe was a kind, caring, loving, father and my best friend.  He was in training to cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats and had completed the same ride twice that week.  He went out on 24th May with a friend to do the ride again.  He kissed his two young children goodnight, kissed me goodbye and went out.

“Joe was cycling down a straight road on a beautiful sunny day when Paul Brown was distracted by eating a sandwich while driving.  He had over 13 seconds to see Joe, but didn’t, and ploughed straight into his back wheel, killing him instantly.  The thought that he lost his life was inconceivable but to find out it was due to someone eating made it feel even more of a loss.  This just should not have happened.

Alice Bailey, communications and campaigns advisor for Brake, said: “Imagining a distracted driver you may think of someone on a mobile phone, but many things can dangerously draw our attention away from the roads around us. In the fast-paced world we live in it is sometimes tempting to eat on the go, but drivers who are distracted by something else, even food, significantly increase their risk of causing a devastating crash. If you’re hungry, you probably need to take a short break from driving to eat and recuperate before continuing your journey when you’re not distracted by hunger or eating.”

You can see the full results of the survey here.