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Distracted driving: Why kids’ snacks and mom’s driving don’t mix

Consumer Reports News: June 08, 2010 05:08 AM

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I usually never give my kids snacks in the car while I’m driving, but that Saturday, I was in a rush.

Where were we rushing to? No place special—a new children’s park I wanted to check out. And because they’d been so patient as we visited the shoe store just beforehand, I was eager to get them to the park quickly.

As we walked back to the car from the store, my 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter got a little cranky, so I pulled out the cereal bars and water after buckling them into their car seats. Not wanting to stand in the blistering late-morning sun in the parking lot as they bit into, chewed, and swallowed their cereal bars, I got in the driver’s seat—against my normal instincts—and turned on the ignition.

My normal instincts, influenced by my knowledge of what not to do (I work at Consumer Reports, after all!), told me that allowing children to eat when buckled in a car seat while you’re driving is a safety hazard. Why? Because if your child begins choking or having breathing problems, every second counts. And the last thing you want to be doing is 1) trying to cross lanes of moving traffic to reach the shoulder of the road, assuming there is a shoulder, (all the while putting yourself and everyone in the car at risk by looking into the backseat to see how he’s doing); 2) attempting to get out of your car into moving traffic; and 3) getting into the backseat while cars are whizzing by, to 4) finally reach your child, who may have stopped breathing 30 or more seconds before. And 5) you may need to perform emergency care on your choking baby or toddler on that busy road.

Even on a quiet road lined with doctors and emergency professionals, would you really want to put your child through that? I wouldn’t.

So with my kids chomping away in the back seat, we left the parking lot and I turned into the main street. Shopper traffic was pretty substantial, so the cars were barely moving about 20 mph or slower, when I suddenly heard my son coughing. I turned my head to find him spitting out a pretty large amount of his snack all over his chest.  My daughter yelled, “He’s gagging on his snack!” and her alarm increased mine, as I tried to cross from the middle lane to the right shoulder to stop the car. By the time I stopped the car, pulled out the key, waited a couple seconds for traffic to clear enough for me to exit my door, run around to his door, open it and loosen his car seat harness, the better part of a minute had passed.

Lucky for me, my son was breathing the whole time. His biggest problem was that a too-big bite of the cereal bar caused to him to gag, and he attempted (successfully, thank goodness) to cough it out of his mouth. The worst of it was that his shirt, pants, sneakers, and car seat were doused with gagging goop and he was unhappy. The good news is that he never stopped breathing.

I should have known better. Regardless of whether your child’s car seat is rear-facing or forward-facing, it’s hazardous to eat snacks in the car. Passing a snack to your child while driving is also a risky move, because drivers tend to turn the steering wheel when reaching backward, which could lead to an accident. Children’s eating in the car is not a good idea overall, since their being secured in a separate seat delays your ability to respond, should the child ever choke—or less seriously, spill their juice all over the upholstery.

The best advice, which I plan to follow: Allow time for snacking before you head out, or plan a few minutes to stop during your trip for a bite or drink. Next time, I’ll wait the few extra minutes to supervise my kids’ snacks and drinks safely before hitting the road.

—Artemis DiBenedetto

Related:

  • The importance of keeping kids rear-facing
  • Foods that are easy for kids to choke on

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