George Clooney's road warrior in "Up in the Air" may be off the road, but as the recession drags on more companies are sending employees into the field in a push to improve customer service.

Many workers now spend most of their day in the car, winding up with food stains on their clothes after snacking at the wheel and a trashed front seat full of unorganized files, wayward pens and scribbled sticky notes. Enter the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk.

The thin tray, which slides onto the bottom of the steering wheel, is popping up in more places as a way to take the messiness out of driving. With its newfound popularity -- the item's been on the market for several years -- has some controversy about whether the 15-by-9-inch laminate tray takes working on the road to a new extreme.
A description on Amazon of the 1.5-pound removable shelf, which retails for $24.95, cautions: "For safety reasons, never use this product while driving."

But the desk's developer, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based AutoExec, said it created the steering wheel tray to provide drivers with a convenient space to eat lunch or work on a laptop -- after they pull over.

"This is not something you use in traffic to take notes and have a meeting when you're on the road," said Diana Chettleburgh, who oversees sales and consulting at the 15-year-old company -- which also makes desks that fit snugly into the passenger seat. "There's no physical way you can drive with it on your steering wheel."

She added that the firm is receiving more orders for the tray from industries, such as real estate, pharmaceutical sales, insurance, border patrol and undercover work, that are moving employees from desks into their cars.

"One out of 10 people in the U.S. spend some time in jail," Chettleburgh said. "So we have more probation officers out there."

The increased visibility of the steering wheel desk elicited plenty of snarky comments online about its possible uses, such as: "These worked great in the cockpit for our transcontinental flights!" and "I loved this so much I got one for my 90-year-old mother."

It's also taken highway safety agencies by surprise.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had never heard of the device. Ditto for safety agencies in states renowned for clogged roads, including California, where people do all sorts of things in traffic like apply mascara, talk to parrots perched on their shoulders, and read reports.

"I'm guessing this is for those times when you want to work in the car and aren't actively driving," wrote Chris Cochran, assistant director of marketing and public affairs for the California Office of Traffic Safety in an e-mail to WalletPop.

"However, just the possibility that someone would use it during the course of driving is a frighteningly bad idea," he added.

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