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  1. Read the article. Sum it up. Do you agree with the title statement? eating and driving is as risky as using a phone at the wheel

By Ben Webster

The Times

August 18, 2006

Drivers who eat and drink at the wheel are twice as likely to have a crash, a study has indicated. They try to compensate for the distractions of eating and drinking by driving more slowly and carefully, but they are often unable to brake in time to avoid a collision.

The risk is similar to using a handheld mobile phone while driving, for which the fixed penalty is to be raised from a £30 to a £60 fine plus three points.

Road safety groups said that the absence of any legislation or clear guidance on the dangers of eating and drinking while driving encouraged motorists to think it was safe.

The research found that a third of people sometimes used handheld mobile phones while driving, but three quarters ate or drank at the wheel.

The 26 participants in the study by Brunel University were asked to drive a Ford Mondeo simulator on an urban route, once without eating and once while eating from a bag of wrapped sweets or drinking from a bottle of water. The simulator would show a pedestrian suddenly stepping into the road and then measure the drivers’ responses.

Even though the participants tended to slow down while unwrapping a sweet or unscrewing and raising the bottle to their lips, they were still twice as likely to hit the pedestrian.

The study, commissioned by Privilege Insurance, concluded: “Drivers’ mental workload was significantly higher when eating or drinking, suggesting that the consumption of refreshments reduces a driver’s ability to deal with other events.

“Drivers may not perceive the risk to be any higher than other menial in-car tasks, but the impaired reactions suggest they should exert caution.”

Mark Young, the Brunel lecturer who carried out the study, said that drinking was found to be more dangerous than eating, possibly because drinking involved drivers’ tipping their heads back and concentrating on avoiding spillages.

He said: “There ought to be specific advice and a publicity campaign about the dangers of eating and drinking while driving. However, legislation would be very difficult because where would you stop? Would you ban people from changing radio channels?” His review of research on the topic had found that there could be other health benefits from avoiding food or drink while at the wheel, he said.

“Nutritionists have expressed concern that eating at the wheel is unhealthy, since the kinds of foods drivers eat at the wheel are typically fast food — and consequently high in fat and salt,” he said. “Psychiatrists suggest that patients with eating disorders are more likely to binge-eat while driving.”

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said it advised people to stop in a safe place if they wanted a snack.

The dangers had been demonstrated by two fatal crashes in recent years caused by drivers eating or drinking, it said.

In 2001 Thomas Munch- Petersen, a lecturer at University College London, was jailed for 90 days for killing three people on the M1 after swerving while searching for a mint in his jacket pocket.

In 2003 Andrew Suffolk was jailed for 30 months for killing a pregnant woman in a crash on the M1. He admitted taking his eyes off the road for a moment to drink some water.

Rob Gifford, director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said that the risk depended on the type of food. “Opening a packet of crisps or unwrapping a sweet might involve both hands,” he said, “but any food might be distracting. Drivers tend to underestimate how complex a task it is to drive a car safely. People lead busier lives and think they can do other things while sitting behind the wheel.”

The Highway Code advises drivers to avoid eating and drinking at the wheel. It states: “Safe driving needs concentration. Avoid distractions when driving such as loud music, trying to read maps, inserting a cassette or CD, arguing with your passengers or other road users and eating or drinking.”

The Department for Transport said that it had no plans for specific measures against eating and drinking, but that the research had provided useful information.

A MATTER OF CONTROL

  • Drivers can be prosecuted for failing to have proper control of a vehicle if they are caught eating or drinking. If they have a crash while consuming food or drink, they can be charged with careless or dangerous driving

  • Last year, a removal lorry driver who ate a packet of crisps and steered with his elbows while negotiating a mini-roundabout was fined £250

  • A nursery nurse was fined £60 last year for holding an apple in her hand while driving around a bend. Police used a video shot from a force aircraft and a video recording from a police car to support their case against her in court

  • In 2000, an accountant was fined £40 for drinking from a bottle of water at traffic lights and then driving off while still holding the bottle of water in her hand.

  1. Read the text. Compare yourself with these accident magnets from Boston. Do you see yourself here? Do you happen to know any dangerous drivers?

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