Drivers urged to take time out to enjoy their lunch, as more than six in ten admit eating at the wheel

20 February 2014

Brake, the road safety charity 

Drivers are being urged to take a break and enjoy their food away from their vehicles, as road safety charity Brake and Direct Line reveal more than six in ten (62%) have eaten at the wheel in the past year. Three in ten (29%) unwrapped food themselves at the wheel – a telling symptom of busy lifestyles putting lives at risk. Studies have suggested eating a meal at the wheel increases your risk of a devastating crash as much as talking on a phone [1].

Brake and Direct Line's survey of 1,000 drivers reveals that in the past year:

  • Three in ten (29%) have opened and eaten food at the wheel.
  • A third (33%) have eaten food that was unwrapped and passed to them by a passenger.
  • One in 50 (2%) has narrowly avoided a crash in the past year, having had to brake or swerve to avoid a hazard because they were distracted by food or drink.

The numbers of UK drivers eating at the wheel reflects a wider trend towards eating on the move, as lifestyles become ever more fast-paced. Britons have been found to spend more on food eaten on the move than any other country in Europe [2], with our continental neighbours more likely to take time out to enjoy meals.

Brake and Direct Line's survey shows it's not just meal times being squeezed by our busy lifestyles, as one in five drivers (20%) admit to doing their hair, applying make-up or otherwise tidying up their appearance while at the wheel. One in 20 (5%) admit doing so in free-flowing traffic, risking appalling crashes.

Eating at the wheel is part of the wider problem of distracted drivers, believed to contribute to around one in five crashes (22%) [3]. Drivers who attempt to multi-task at the wheel are two to three times more likely to crash [4], and complex tasks like unwrapping and eating a burger increase the risk even more [5]. The consequences can be deadly, as in May 2012 when cyclist Joe Wilkins was killed by a driver who was eating a sandwich. More details in case study below.

Brake urges all drivers to give the road their full attention and save any other activities for regular breaks, which should be at least every two hours on long journeys. Brake also calls on government to make traffic policing a national priority to stop multi-tasking drivers putting lives at risk. Recently introduced on-the-spot fines [6] for 'careless driving' offences are a step in the right direction and have already been used on a lorry driver brushing his teeth [7]. However, Brake argues the current £100 fine needs to be much higher to effectively deter this potentially deadly behaviour.

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, said: "Driving is the most complicated and risky thing most of us do on a regular basis, so it is vital we give it our full and undivided attention; we can't afford to treat our cars as an extension of our kitchen or bathroom. Eating at the wheel often means taking your eyes, hands and mind off the road and dramatically increases your chances of crashing and killing or seriously injuring someone. Drivers need to take regular breaks and make time away from their vehicles to enjoy lunch or perform other tasks. We are also appealing to government to increase fines for distraction and careless driving offences, to stop risky multi-tasking drivers."

Rob Miles, director of Motor at Direct Line, commented: "It's imperative that motorists focus their full attention on the road. There has been significant research into the increase in drivers' reaction times while talking on a mobile phone, but other in-car distractions that take the driver's attention away from the road can be equally harmful. We advise motorists to always build in time for a break if they are going on a long journey, and use this time to refuel with food and drinks as well as with petrol."

Read about Brake's drive smart campaign. Tweet us: @Brakecharity, hashtag #DriveSmart. Read the survey report.

Case study
Joe Wilkins, 39, from Eynsham in Oxfordshire, was killed when cycling in May 2012. The driver, Paul Brown, 30, was eating a sandwich and claims he didn't see Joe. He crashed into the back of Joe's bike at 60mph, sending him flying into a ditch over 20 metres from where he was hit. Joe died at the roadside, despite attempts by a passing nurse to resuscitate him.

Brown was convicted of causing death by careless driving. He was ordered to carry out 240 hours of unpaid work and disqualified from driving for a year, close to the minimum penalty that can be given for this offence.

The father of two young children, Joe was a fire fighter with ten years' experience and described as "one of the nicest people you could ever meet" and "a credit to the community".

Joe's partner Nicci Saunders says: "My family has been blown apart. Our two young daughters have to grow up without their dad and me without my soul mate. The girls have been utterly traumatised and still wake in the night crying for their Daddy. I am trying to support them through it, but I miss him terribly too. None of our lives will ever be the same again. Road crashes are avoidable, and Joe's death could have been prevented so easily by the driver giving his full attention to driving."

A study of in-vehicle video footage of driver behaviour taken from over two million miles of journeys found 22% of crashes could be caused, at least in part, by driver distraction. It also showed that drivers who perform a secondary task at the wheel are two to three times more likely to crash [8]. Some very complex tasks increase this risk even more.

Many drivers take risks by eating, smoking, changing music tracks or using a phone in the belief they are skilled enough to keep control. In fact, research shows drivers are not able to correctly estimate the level of distraction they are suffering [9] and 98% of drivers are not able to divide their attention without a significant deterioration in driving performance [10].

Mobile phones and other technology are well-known causes of distraction, but other things, including eating, drinking or doing your hair or make-up can be just as dangerous. One study suggested that eating that involves unwrapping food at the wheel slows your reactions by up to 44%, more than texting [11]. Some studies have suggested eating a meal while driving increases crash risk as much as talking on the phone [12].

Brake's advice
Distraction is deadly. Drivers need to keep their mind and eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel to drive safely. Giving into distractions is a bit like drink-driving: it affects reaction times and control, and could easily cost someone their life.

Eating and drinking on the move might seem harmless but research shows it reduces our ability to react quickly. Eating should be a pleasure, so take the time out and savour your meals when you're not driving.

On long journeys, stop for breaks every two hours and use that time to eat, catch up on phone calls and messages, and do any personal grooming you need to do. When you get back in the car, your mind should be completely back on the road.

Calls for government action
Brake recently welcomed the introduction of a new £100 fixed penalty notice that can be issued on the spot by police for 'careless driving' offences. However, Brake believes £100 is not nearly enough to effectively deter risky law-breaking behaviour. The fixed penalty notice should be increased to at least £500 or preferably closer to £1,000, reflecting that it is a crime that endangers lives. Brake's own research has shown that nearly half of drivers (47%) think a fine of £500 or more is appropriate for offences including careless driving [13], and nearly half (46%) say they would take more care on the road if penalties were tougher [14].

However, a more appropriate financial penalty is of little use unless there are enough road traffic police to detect risky law-breaking behaviour. Brake calls on government to stem worrying cut-backs in traffic policing by making it a national policing priority, to ensure we have sufficient numbers of specialist officers enforcing vital safety laws on roads.

About the report
These survey results come from Report 5, Section 1 of the Direct Line and Brake report on safe driving, 2012 – 2014 Fit to Drive, released today (Tuesday 20 February 2014). The survey consisted of 1,000 drivers and was conducted by Surveygoo. Read the report.

Full results
Q1: In the past 12 months, have you eaten food when driving?
• 29% of drivers said they have opened food to eat themselves in the past year
• 33% of drivers said they eaten food unwrapped and passed to them by a passenger in the past year
• 38% of drivers said they have never eaten while driving

Q2: Do you ever do personal grooming when driving (e.g. shaving, combing hair, applying make-up)?
• 5% of drivers said yes, including in free-flowing traffic
• 15% of drivers said yes, but only in stationary traffic
• 80% of drivers said they don't do personal grooming at the wheel

Q3: In the past year, have you braked suddenly or swerved because you were slow to notice a hazard when distracted (e.g. because you didn't notice the car ahead stopping in time) by food or drink?
• 2% of drivers said they braked or swerved because they were distracted by food or drink
• 98% of drivers had not braked or swerved because they were distracted by food or drink

Brake is an independent road safety charity. Brake exists to stop the five deaths and 63 serious injuries that happen on UK roads every day and to care for families bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes. Brake runs awareness-raising campaigns, community education programmes, events such as Road Safety Week (17-23 November 2014), and a Fleet Safety Forum, providing advice to companies. Brake's support division cares for road crash victims through a helpline and other services.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

Direct Line
Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides motor, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by UK Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England No 1179980. UK Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc. Customers can find out more about Direct Line products or get a quote by calling 0845 246 3761 or visiting

End notes
[1] Crash dieting: The effects of eating and drinking on driving performance, Brunel University, 2008
[2] Busy Britons 'eating on the move', BBC News, 2004
[3] The impact of driver inattention on near-crash/crash risk: an analysis using the 100-car naturalistic driving study data, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2006
[4] ibid
[5] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005
[6] Charity welcomes fixed penalty for careless driving, but calls for higher fines, Brake, 5 May 2013
[7] Police issuing on the spot fines for dangerous driving, thejusticegap, 2013
[8] The impact of driver inattention on near-crash/crash risk: an analysis using the 100-car naturalistic driving study data, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2006
[9] Assessing the awareness of performance decrements in distracted drivers, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2007
[10] Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability, University of Utah, 2010
[11] Two hands better than one, University of Leeds, 2012
[12] Crash dieting: The effects of eating and drinking on driving performance, Brunel University, 2008
[13] Results from a survey of 1,000 drivers and riders conducted by Redshift Research on behalf of Brake and Direct Line, 2012
[14] ibid

Tags: distraction