July 11, 1997 in Nation/World

Fast Food For A Crash Diet Cholesterol Isn’t The Only Thing Dangerous About Eating On The Go

Deb Riechmann Associated Press

Michael Alper cruises by the Taco Bell drive-thru and sinks his teeth into a steak fajita wrapped in a floppy flour tortilla before even leaving the parking lot.

Cheeks bulging, he accelerates to 40 mph and changes lanes.

His Jeep Cherokee veers to the right. But the half-eaten fajita he clutches stays upright - its contents intact. Nice save.

This is dashboard dining, a practice that has become so commonplace that fast-food chains are being forced to design fare that’s not only fast, but easy to eat behind the wheel.

“When I eat in the car, usually it’s a fajita, burger - something not messy, something I can eat in one hand,” explains 19-year-old Alper.

Taco Bell folds its tortillas a certain way to keep juice and food from oozing out. Food technologists work to make taco shells less crumbly and tortillas more durable.

The packaging around Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new chicken pita sandwich has a bottom to catch any chicken, ranch dressing, cheese, lettuce or tomato that might other wise land in a lap.

Some drive-thru customers want their burgers cut in half so they’re easier to handle, says Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller. Others ask to hold the condiments. To help morning motorists, Burger King made its breakfast sandwiches moister - crumble-proof.

This spring, 7-Eleven convenience stores, which once had an ad campaign depicting the stores as “Dashboard Diners,” introduced a quarter-pound hamburger shaped like a hot dog, said Karen Raskopf, who first tried the product in the company test kitchen in Dallas.

The stores already offered breakfast patty sausages in the shape of a hot dog, easier to eat one-handed. Elongated omelets on hot dog-shaped buns were introduced this month.

In 1995, law enforcement officers investigating 37,221 fatal crashes nationwide cited inattentive driving as a factor nearly 6 percent of the time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which preaches that driving is a full-time job.

The average American ate 13 meals in a car last year - up from 11 in 1990 and nine in 1984, according to NPD Group, a New York-based consumer marketing research company.

“You think fat and cholesterol are the most dangerous things about fast food,” says NPD’s Harry Balzer, who thinks car bibs are needed. “The most dangerous thing is eating in your car.”

Hurrying between meetings, Dawn Sanger, a business consultant from Falls Church, Va., took her eyes off the road one day to eat a McDonald’s hamburger and balance a Coke in the cup holder of her pale blue Jaguar.

“I went right through a red light. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. But it was just really an eye opener on how dangerous it is,” says Sanger, who rarely eats and drives at the same time anymore.

Ken Walsh compromises. He nibbles on a few Wendy’s fries and sips on a Coke he keeps wedged between his thighs as he maneuvers his white Ford pickup through lunch time traffic in Arlington. But he won’t eat his burger until he gets where he’s going. Can he steer, eat and shift gears?

“Sometimes safety may be compromised, but yeah, I can do it,” he says. “You just keep shifting the drink around and try not to eat too much in the way of fries.”

Safety issues aside, this trend may be unstoppable. Mini microwaves are being designed for the car. Built-in trash compactors and coolers are coming. Tray tables that fold down from seat backs are on the drawing board. And tray tables that strap to the steering wheel are already available for motorists who want to park and dine.

“People are trying to design all kinds of wacky things for cars that you find in your home,” says Bill Fluharty, automotive interior designer for Prince Corp., a division of Johnson Controls Inc. in Plymouth, Michigan. “Whether they’re appropriate or not we have to decide.”

Temperature-controlled cup holders also are on the horizon, says Jim Masters, an automotive engineer at Lear Corp. in Southfield, Mich. Flip a switch. The blue light means the drink is chilling. A red light means it’s keeping your coffee hot.

“Everybody kind of hit the road in the 1960s, and we haven’t stopped,” says Pierce Hollingsworth, president of a Wheaton, Ill.-based food trend tracking firm. “I think what you’re seeing right now is an intersection of car designers, food service and restaurants - all coming together on this.”

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

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