Backseat drivin' the driver crazy

Special to The TribuneOctober 15, 2013 


Backseat drivers are those passengers who repeatedly make comments about the skills and performance of the person behind the wheel. Statements may be relatively innocuous: “Can you see that the traffic is slowing down up ahead?” Or they can be hostile and mean: “Watch what you’re doing! You’re driving like a #@$% idiot!” Whatever the content, backseat driving is unappreciated and causes tension in the car to accelerate at breakneck speed.

Backseat driving is the result of two emotional forces. The first is a need to control. Backseat drivers try to assert their authority over the vehicle and thereby wrest power away from the driver. They may rationalize their behavior by saying they’re only trying to help. Still, their I-know-more-than-you-do actions elicit immediate defensiveness from the driver.

The second factor is anxiety. Backseat drivers harbor irrational worries about getting into an accident. They’re convinced they notice details that the driver doesn’t see. They shout “Watch out!” without provocation or keep a death grip on the door handle. The more fretful they feel, the more likely they are to offer advice. Far from being helpful, they create stress that actually hinders the driver’s reaction times.

A good rule to follow is that the driver is in charge. When a person is deemed capable of driving, he or she is granted ultimate command of the vehicle.

Sometimes others’ observations are helpful. Passengers may be able to see objects that are in the driver’s blind spot or act as a second set of eyes while pulling out into heavy traffic.

Of course, there are times when the driver isn’t able to be in charge. A student driver requires input from a trainer or qualified adult. If that input is challenged or met with belligerence, the driving session should immediately stop and the parent or trainer should reclaim the wheel.

In other instances, if the driver is demonstrating impaired ability, such as driving while intoxicated or showing road rage, passengers have the responsibility to take action.

They should first make an observation that informs the driver he or she is behaving in an unsafe manner. If the situation continues unchanged, passengers should offer to drive or demand the car be stopped so they can get out.


Learn to relax. If you’re nervous on the highway, make it your responsibility to chill out. Practice deep breathing techniques. Relax your hands and forearms. Think soothing thoughts. Close your eyes. Distract your brain by listening to podcasts or soft music.

Stop being a control freak. Listen to your verbiage. If you’re always giving advice, then you probably chafe when you’re not top dog. Sit in the back seat so you’re further away from the action. Stop watching over the driver’s shoulder. Resist the temptation to provide hints. Engage other passengers in a stimulating and distracting conversation.

Do what you can. There are lots of ways to help besides telling the driver what to do. Read the map. Answer a ringing iPhone. Adjust the air conditioner. Point out an upcoming off-ramp. Call ahead if you’re running late. You won’t be intrusive. You’ll be useful.

Be pleasant inside the car. Cars are tight spaces where you sit with others for long periods of time. They’re primed for tempers to flare. Assume your best get-along personae. Avoid contentious topics. Never hurl expletives, no matter what the driver does.

Avoid problems before they start. If the driver already appears compromised before turning the key, offer to do the driving or volunteer to call a cab.

Know when to intervene. Sometimes you see something the driver doesn’t. Your quick actions could save everyone’s lives. Then you have full permission to respond as you see fit.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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