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Meals on Wheels : It may not be safe, but in Southern California mobile gastronomy is a way of life. Drivers have become adept at turning their cars into rolling fast-food feeders.

April 06, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Highway Patrol, ever protective of our undivided attentions, says motoring and machaca don't mix.

But, spokesmen confess, show them an officer who hasn't patrolled Interstate 5 with a Dolly Madison alongside his or her Maglite and they'll show you a hunger striker with a badge.

Car designers, ever bothered by flying objects inside our flying objects, say their priority goes to designing safe interiors with air bags keeping a driver from going face first through a windshield, not into a pepperoni pizza.

But, acknowledges Jerry Hirschberg, vice president of Nissan Design International of San Diego, any commuter who ever popped an antacid likely has nibbled and sipped while driving.

"Me? You bet," he admits. "Once, in a (Nissan) Quest, I folded down a seat into a table and actually used it for the purpose for which we had designed it.

"Had a McChicken sandwich, fries and a Coke. God, it tasted great."

Response to a View request exploring readers' automotive eating habits, however, indicates Hirschberg's mobile gastronomy is positively uncreative.

Monica Panno, a computer accounts manager, deserves a SigAlert Supping Award for driving the Hollywood Freeway while eating a Chinese meal. With rice. With chopsticks. While shifting a five-speed.

"I have actually bought cars based on their ability to balance a container full of liquid without spilling," Panno says. Her current car is a 1992 Saturn Coupe--blue with a plum sauce interior.

Bob Makela of Long Beach is a fast-lane fast feeder with the Taco Bell habit. He finds no problem with Mexican food when driving his doorless, roofless Jeep. "If eating a big, messy taco from my personal Spago, I can lean out the Jeep at 60 m.p.h. and let the excess spillage fall innocently onto the road," he explains.

The downside? Jeeps come with gale-force interiors. Salsa spots and greasy lettuce are inevitably blown onto clean shirts. Odd blobs of dead tomato may splatter the windshields of following Bimmers.

"Every meal," Makela says, "is an adventure."

No readers reported being ticketed for lane wandering or rubbing fenders with other diners while noshing on the run.

But CHP Officer Todd Sturges says he once stopped a suspected drunk driver to find that the man's meandering was caused by preoccupation with an oversized cheeseburger. Sturges also has investigated rear-end collisions where clues to the probable cause were fries and bent buns in the rear ender's lap.

Says Sturges: "If a citation is written, it is for unsafe speed for existing conditions."

"Existing conditions," according to other officers, include talking on cellular phones, using laptop computers, reading paperbacks, applying mascara, retying ponytails, passing sushi, getting a sun-reflector tan, polishing nails or--usually on the graveyard shift--groping a passenger. Or vice versa.

Munching while motoring, reports Peter O'Rourke, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety, has spawned a cottage industry of gadgets: Refrigerators plugged into cigarette lighters, dashboard hot plates, mini-microwave ovens that fit under the front seat--"even a 'Road Hog' apron designed to keep nasty spills from spoiling one's suit.

"Unfortunately . . . more than 92% of all collisions on the freeway are caused by driver inattention," he says.

And the problem can cost more than stained lapels.

"I recall one unfortunate incident when a man, eating a hamburger, was rear-ended and choked to death," O'Rourke adds. "So, my vote for the ideal dining car is one that is parked."

*

Eating at the wheel may be a fender bender or worse waiting to happen. But in Southern California, where a week's commuting can total one work day at the wheel, combining activities is accepted as the quickest route to going places.

As one traveler noted: "The solution is obvious: Eat at home. I can't. I'm in a McHurry."

Other readers' letters wove common threads:

They Don't Make Dining

Cars Like They Used To

"My 1979 Chevrolet was perfect," says Naomi Roth of Culver City. "I could set a tacky plastic beverage container on the transmission hump. You know, the kind weighted down on both sides with sand bags."

John Hughes of Morro Bay says he clings to his 1967 Chevelle as the quintessence of meals on wheels: "There's more room to toss the empties, and space in the trunk for a small oven to cook those 16-inch pizzas for the long haul to Big Sur."

Joanne Serin of Sherman Oaks remembers the '60s for more than Woodstock and the Hanoi Hilton. It was the decade her father owned a British-built Humber station wagon--known over there as a shooting brake. Shooting , as in hunting. Brake , as in small thicket or hide.

"It had airline-type trays that pulled down from the back of the front seats," she remembers. "A very eater-friendly car."

Jeff Heister, a Northridge sales rep, still lives the California dream through coastal drives in his 1958 Corvette with the top down, and In-and-Out burgers and fries to go.

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