Road Rules: Backseat drivers


Question: When I drive with a certain person in the passenger seat, they’re always telling me to watch out for brake lights, check my speed, back off from the car in front of me and so on. I think I’m a good driver and they’re overreacting, but I don’t want to start a fight. How should I deal with a backseat driver (or passenger seat driver)? 

Answer: Do you know who the worst backseat drivers are? Fifteen-year-olds. They’re at the age where they think they might be smart enough to challenge a grown-up, and their driver’s ed classes are fresh in their minds. What makes them the worst isn’t how they correct you, or that you’re used to being the one in charge. It’s that they’re right. 

I don’t know if it’s your kid, your spouse or a friend who’s doing the backseat driving, but the human response to criticism is near universal. Nobody, at least nobody I know, likes it. But just because you don’t like what someone says doesn’t mean they’re wrong. 

There are a lot of traffic laws, but I only found one that could apply to backseat drivers (although, from what you described, it doesn’t apply to your backseat driver.) Before I present the law, I’ll note that I’ve never met anyone who received a ticket for violating it, and I couldn’t find any case law addressing this law. I mention that to say that I’m not sure how this law should be applied, but it seems like it’s on topic. Now, the law (paraphrased for brevity): It shall be unlawful for any person to direct the operator of any vehicle to require or knowingly permit the operation of such vehicle in any manner contrary to the law.

That sounds to me like if a passenger told you to speed, or cut off another driver, or tailgate, they’d be breaking this law. And you don’t want to hear this next part, but maybe you could make the case that if a passenger knew you were violating the law and didn’t speak up, they’d be guilty of permitting the illegal operation of a vehicle. Yes, that’s a stretch, but if anything, the law leans in favor of your backseat driver.

You said you’re a good driver, and that might be true, but let’s consider the alternative. Sure, your passenger might be a control freak who’s going to find fault in anything that doesn’t involve them. But for many people, it takes some courage to confront another person or call out a behavior they’re not comfortable with. If your driving makes your passenger uneasy, is it possible that you’ve been driving with yourself for so long that you don’t notice your poor driving habits? Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice what’s been in front of you all along. 

It also takes some self-awareness to endure a critical passenger and not want to get in a fight, so I commend you. As someone completely unqualified to give counseling advice, here’s some advice. You can’t control the delivery of the criticism, but you can choose your response. Take a moment to search for truth in the criticism. Engage in an honest conversation with your car mate, and listen to their concerns. If your backseat driver is right, and you change your driving because of it, you’ll become a better driver. If they’re wrong, and you respond in a way that resolves the backseat driving problem and leaves the other person’s dignity intact, you’ll become a better human. Sounds like a win either way.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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