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Backseat drivers are more helpful than you think

14 July 2020

Man driving car
Passengers can help reduce a driver's crash risk. Photo by Art Markiv on Unsplash.

Having a passenger in the car can make a trip safer and more enjoyable, compared to driving alone, according to research by University of Waikato psychology professors Samuel Charlton and Nicola Starkey.

"There's this perception out there that passengers can be distracting, nagging and so-forth, but after the age of 24 having a passenger in your car actually decreases the chance you're going to have a crash," said Professor Charlton.

For young drivers (under the age of 25), having one or more same-age passengers increases the risk of a crash. Professors Charlton and Starkey, members of the University’s Transport Research Group, wanted to know why this difference existed; what were the older drivers and passengers doing that the young ones were not?

Previous research mainly focused on the possible distraction passengers cause, rather than their protective influence. In this ground-breaking study, the researchers asked Kiwi drivers about the helpful things their passengers did, and the things they wish passengers would do more.

In addition to being good company, these included handing the driver food or beverages, answering their mobile phone for them, and looking after children or other passengers. A helpful co-driver involved in the trip was better than a passive person along for the ride.

As well as surveying drivers, the researchers video recorded drivers and passengers who travel together frequently. They observed that indirect advice could be particularly useful, such as pointing out hazards.

Some drivers wished their passengers would do more to help them. The research provides tips on how to be a good passenger.

Helpful passengers:

  • Point out potential hazards ahead that the driver may not have seen
  • Check on the state of the driver and that they are not too tired or impaired to drive
  • Help with non-driving tasks like music, air-conditioning, food and drinks or dealing with children
  • Give directions in good time
  • Chat, but not when the driver needs extra focus on the road or about topics that annoy the driver.

Unhelpful passengers:

  • Comment on the driver’s driving style, or another road user’s behaviour
  • Focus on things that the driver can’t change, like if they are running late
  • Give directions late, which can be stressful for drivers
  • Make unexpected loud sounds that surprise the driver (including mobile phone conversations)

“Having a conversation about what the driver expects and finds helpful is really important, before the journey begins,” said Professor Charlton. “And universally, people don’t like having their driving commented on.”

The research was funded by the Automobile Association Research Foundation.

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