How To Be A (Great) Passenger

A Race Car Driver Gives Us Tips

“How to be a passenger?” you ask. “What’s next, ‘how to put your pants on?’ All a passenger has to do is sit back and enjoy the ride, eat a sandwich, talk on the phone or play air drums, right?”

Wrong, actually. Passengers can -- and frequently do -- distract drivers from their task, sometimes with expensive or tragic consequences. But it’s possible, even if you’ve never driven a car in your life, to actively engage in its safe operation as a passenger. AOL Autos spoke to 4-time Trans Am champion race car driver and commentator Tommy Kendall on the subject of responsible ridership whether you’re married, in a band, carpooling or have thumbed a ride.

“I’m not trying to be a killjoy,” Kendall said. “But the equivalent of a football stadium full of people die each year on the highway. An engaged passenger helps the driver and get everyone where they’re going safely.”

Here are a few tips for both new riders and seasoned passengers.

Be a good co-pilot

“Basically, help drive the car,” Kendall says. “Be the eyes and ears when the driver is pulling out onto a highway or making a turn. Turn your head and lean back if the driver’s trying to see if anything's on the right, or look yourself and inform the driver. Don’t make the driver ask you to put your seatbelt on. And If you're a on a journey to somewhere you've both never been and you have no Nav system, be the navigator.“

Hang up

“When a passenger talks on the phone, they are zoning—not paying attention,” Kendall said. “It’s hard for the driver to have to listen to that because you can't walk away from it or plug your ears. Try to keep your voice down and keep it brief, or stay off the phone altogether.”

Contain your vocal reactions in tight spots

“When you yell, you’re actually helping the driver to hit something,” Kendall said. “You need everything you’ve got to get through an emergency situation, and yelling, gasping or exclaiming is a huge distraction that pulls the driver away from concentrating.”

He suggests having a talk with passengers beforehand if they’re nervous.

“People get in the car with me sometimes and they think I’m going to drive like we’re on the race track. But I’m incredibly self-centered and I don’t want to get hurt any more than they do. I just tell them, ‘”I’m not going to do anything to hurt you.’”

Pay closer attention when the car is packed with people.

“Almost without exception when there are people in the car,” Kendall says, “The car slows down, drifts into other lanes and passengers can take the driver’s attention away from the road. The more people in the car, the more everyone has to defer to the driver, which can mean lowering your voices, keeping the music at a reasonable level, and being aware of what’s going on outside the vehicle.”

Do as the Germans do

“American drivers and passengers could definitely take a cue from German drivers,” says Kendall, who has driven in Tokyo, Mexico, Canada, Sweden, France, Australia, England, Italy and other countries. “German driving tests are much more rigorous and harder to pass, and Germans are the best drivers in the world. They pay more attention and take it seriously -- not just the drivers, but everyone in the car.”

Get in and out and close the door quickly on city streets.

“An open door is a huge hazard,” says Kendall. “A 4,000-pound car is a huge amount of energy, and all it takes is a split second for it to take your door off. It’s called situation awareness and it comes down to paying attention.”

Don’t backseat drive, even if you’re in the front seat.

“Some passengers point every little mistake out, and it adds to the driver’s stress level instead of easing it,” says Kendall. “You can and should give the driver information, but not comments or an editorial. Save that for before or after the trip.”

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