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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants are only allowed to offer take-out and curbside pickup. Recently, I attempted to eat a four-course Chinese lunch in my car and have been enjoying some drive-through delights that are summed up in one term – messy. It got me wondering, what are the best practices and how should you eat in your car?

For the last few weeks, I have been on a quest to find out the best tips for in-car dining. I discovered it all boils down to four principles to avoid ‘comestible carmageddons’: plan, park, prepare and protect.

Is it Safe to Drive While Eating or Drinking?

Almost everyone I know eats in their cars, many while driving. Fast food drive-throughs are designed for you to drive through and out onto the street. I have stopped a few of times at McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger for snacks and drinks. I admit that I took a sip of an ice-cold light lemonade and also could not help myself and tasted a French fry while driving.

Lisa Robinson, senior program manager for the National Safety Council, talked some safety sense into me. Drinking and or eating while driving is dangerous and distracting.

“Although everywhere we go, we see people eating or drinking while driving. It is a distraction. You need to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road,” says Robinson.

She says someone came up to her at a conference and showed her a photo on his phone of a wrecked totalled SUV. He was driving with a paper cup filled with ice tea in his right hand. The cup started collapsing on itself. He grabbed the cup with his left hand taking his hands off the wheel. Then he looked down at the cup. The SUV ran into the traffic ahead at 70 miles per hour (113 km/h).

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When eating in a vehicle it is very important to keep the food and drinks away from the electronic equipment.

Robinson advises to plan ahead and decide before you go to pick up food where you’re going to eat it. If you are going to eat at home – put the meal in the back seat. If you are not going to take the meal home, before you get the food, think about places nearby that you can park and comfortably eat your food.

“It’s all about self-control. You have a choice. Choose in advance. Think about what is safe. Whenever the vehicle is in motion, keep your hands on the wheel and your brain engaged in driving,” says Robinson.

She notes that it is difficult to count the number of accidents caused by eating or consuming non-alcoholic beverages while driving because it is not recorded on accident police reports.

Robinson warns, when you crash your car, “you don’t get to do a do-over.”

Mmm – a $2 iced tea could cost the price of a brand new SUV – I’m never going to eat or drink tea while driving again. I will plan my trips to drive-throughs and remember to scout out beforehand, a nice place to park.

Why You Should Protect or Pay a High Price

Cars are not designed for eating or drinking safely, says Chris Schreiner – Director, UX Syndicated Research User Experience Practice Strategy Analytics, “In most cases the USB ports and the cup holders are usually in the centre console next to each other.”

He warns “When eating in a vehicle it is very important to keep the food and drinks away from the electronic equipment including the electronic gear shifter USB ports, aux outlet and 12-volt electric port, which will be incredibly expensive to repair.”

The preferred place for eating for SUVs and other large vehicles is to eat at the tailgate far away from the electronic parts. When eating in cars he recommends covering electronics to protect them from damage. Eating food with sauces that drip can stain seat fabrics when not cleaned immediately. Schreiner says that, in one of his vehicles, a lunch stain could never be removed from the seat fabric.

I could buy something called a picnic/tailgate blanket or camping mat that has a waterproof bottom. Whoops, I don’t have the big enough car to tailgate. Aha, I can take my car to the nearest park and picnic on the grass.

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Wait a minute – fires are raging in the surrounding mountains and it is just too hot to be outside.

Schreiner reports that in China there is a trend of people who live in multi-generational homes using their cars as a getaway place for eating, reading and solace.

Schreiner suggests that there should be some kind of desk or table to eat on in your car.

Prestidigisearcho – yes there is such a thing – is a car table tray desk made in China. A tray table that hooks to the steering wheel that you can buy online – but they don’t keep sauces from dripping or drinks from spilling.

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What Auto Products Help Prepare and Protect Your Car For In-Car Dining?

After talking to Schreiner, I was thinking about one of my readers who commented that he had an electric car with an electronic gear shifter and liquid spilt on it which cost $700 to repair.

Yikes – what is right next to my cup holder but my electronic gear shifter!

I checked online auto suppliers and could not find anything to protect the gear shifter.

I attempted to put plastic wrap on it but the problem was the plastic wrap doesn’t move when I change gears.

Eureka! I found a silicone bowl cover to put over the gear shifter. You can not stick anything to silicon such as glue or tape, nothing sticks to it. Silicone is waterproof which led to a duct tape tab glued to the change compartment and a paper clip attached to the tab on the bowl cover to hold it in place.

Then I went to a local auto parts store and told a fresh-faced teenaged associate that I was eating in my car and wanted to protect my car. I was told to look at seat covers and floor mats.

Voilà the ‘NeverWet’ seat cover is waterproof and will protect the seat. Rubber mats are much easier to clean spills. However, what could keep the human clean in the car?

In trying times, I don’t give up trying. I went to another auto parts store a few blocks away.

“What can I use to keep the food from getting all over me?” I asked the automotive associate who was wearing a crisp green service uniform, “We don’t have anything like that – you could get what the barbers use when they cut your hair,” he chortled with his hands miming connecting a barber cape around his neck.

I actually thought about that solution for a few minutes. But if I spilt a big gulp? Wouldn’t it just drip down all over the floor? Since most are plastic, wearing one would be really hot.

Then I began searching through alternative means using every word I could think of including ‘adult bib for car’. Holy guacamole – I found a solution to keep me and the car pristine (even from hot sauce and guacamole) – AutoAprons.

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Why You Ought to Try AutoAprons

“A new reality today is curbside pickup and people are eating in their cars,” says Paul Bunker, the inventor of AutoAprons. While travelling in Atlanta, Georgia he was wearing dress grey trousers and stopped for a morning breakfast biscuit sandwich.

“I’m a clean freak and I noticed that one crumb fell on my grey pants. Then I saw that the grease was the size of a dime,” says Bunker.

He realised that he wears aprons while he cooked and worked with an engineer to develop waterproof AutoAprons with Velcro neck-straps and pockets around the bottom called CrumbCatchers that collect crumbs and spills. Bunker says a single AutoApron will hold 32 oz (.95 L) of liquid.

“AutoAprons are catch-alls for things such as soda, coffee, French fries, hamburger sauces and barbeque sauces,” says Bunker who notes, when he shot a video, the cheeseburger stains never came out of his shirt. He harked back to the breakfast biscuit blemish, reporting that if he was wearing an AutoApron he could have saved his $85 trousers.

“A big trend is families are going on road trips to national parks. AutoAprons make it safer for the passengers who are eating in the car,” explains Bunker. AutoAprons are popular at fuel stations, roadside attractions and truck stops because and because they are so practical.

“AutoApron is easy to use. It folds up. You just keep it in your car. Once you see it, you realize it’s been missing from your life all along,” says Bunker “Everyone benefits from it.”

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Practising the PPPP Principles

Stay-at-home and lockdowns have changed the way we all live. I’m now used to wearing a face mask every time I go out. Until inside dining re-opens at restaurants will I abide by the four ‘P’s of how to eat in your car? 

The new normal will be PPE (or should I say PPPP?) for my car and me. Is it worth it? For a glorious expedition to my favourite Far East eatery in West LA to savour chop suey, fried rice, egg flower soup, egg roll and a fortune cookie – you bet. Where’s my AutoApron….

Auto Dining Principles

· Plan ahead. Decide if you’re going to eat at home or in your car.

· Park your car in a safe place for eating.

· Prepare yourself and car for eating adventures, bring clean up and protective gear.

· Protect yourself and your car.

Cheers from the home of car culture – California. Bon appétit.

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