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Burrito-eating Bus Driver – Food as Dangerous Driver Distraction

burritoDistracted driving accidents often involve cell phones, texting and other electronic devices. For example, we recently concluded a case in which a truck driver was talking on his cell phone with someone in South America for nearly half an hour before he ran over a line of stopped traffic.

But something as apparently innocuous as eating and drinking is very often a fatal distraction too. We have had several cases in which a truck driver leaned over to pick up a dropped water bottle when he ran over other vehicles, killing or seriously injuring the occupants.

In this recent case in Albequerque, New Mexico, a bus driver was caught on video eating a burrito with both hands when he crashed into another vehicle and caused a chain reaction with other cars.

When my kids were learning to drive, we joked about people who drove while eating a burrito, talking on the cell phone, reading a newspaper and applying makeup. Any one of those is enough to be a fatal distraction.

Any food that is messy, requires more than one hand or can be a problem if dropped can be a fatal distraction for drivers. When I’m on a trip and feel the need to eat on the road, I try to stick with something simple like a banana or chicken nuggets. A burrito or a sloppy burger is just too distracting to eat while driving. If you must eat those, pull over, park and finish eating before driving. If a water bottle or other beverage is dropped on the floor, let it go until you are stopped in a safe place, If passengers want to have a five course meal on the road, that’s up to them, but the driver should minimize distractions from any source, including food and beverages.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has rated the top 10 most dangerous foods and beverages to consume while driving, some of which are more dangerous than texting while driving. They are:

  1. Hot coffee.  When hot coffee sloshes on your hand, lap or the front of your clothing, it is dangerously distracting. Rather than drinking it from an open cup or a flimsy paper cup from Starbucks or McDonald’s put it in an insulated and well-sealed commuter mug before you start driving. Not all commuter mugs are created equal. If you have one that dribbles, just trash it.
  2. Hot soup.  Some people are tempted to eat or drink soup from one of the microwaveable single serving container. That is pretty obviously a bad idea. If you really need soup while traveling, transfer it to an good commuter mug. Better yet, eat it before you start driving.
  3. Tacos. Everything I said about burritos applies equally to tacos. When it spills into your lap, as it almost inevitably will, it will result in dangerously erratic driving.
  4. Chili.  You can’t even consume good chili from a commuter mug. Just don’t even think about it.
  5. Juicy hamburgers.  When it dribbles on your clothing or the tomato falls in your lap, you will be dangerously distracted. Eat it before you drive. Or as my personal trainer (and son) would advise, don’t eat it at all.
  6. Barbeque.  Any BBQ worth eating is dripping with sauce. (I won’t get into the debate between the varieties of BBQ native to various regions of the south.) Getting BBQ sauce all over your clothes and  car seat will surely lead to distracted driving. Don’t think you can outsmart messy BBQ sauce by spreading napkins all over yourself. Eat it before you drive.
  7. Fried chicken.  Even if you can eat fried chicken with one hand, this finger-licking good Southern specialty will have you licking your fingers, wiping grease off the steering wheel, and generally getting distracted.
  8. Donuts filled with jelly or creamy stuff, or dusted with sugar. You know these are messy to eat. The fillings ooze and drip, the powdered sugar scatters on your clothing, and you get distracted. And as with several of these foods, there are healthier alternatives anyway.
  9. Canned or bottled drinks. You may be OK as long as you keep it in a drink holder, don’t dribble and keep your eyes on the road. If you fumble or drop it, let it go even if it messes up your car. As I mentioned above, I have had several cases in which innocent people died because a truck driver leaned over to pick up a dropped water bottle and took his eyes off the road.
  10. Messy chocolate.  You may be OK snacking on M&M’s that melt in your mouth, not in your hand. But any chocolate that melts, smears and gets on your hands may be dangerously distracting when you drive.

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Ken Shigley is an Atlanta trial attorney focused on serious personal injury and wrongful death cases. He is currently chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Previously he served as president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair of the board of trustees of theInstitute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.