Are you a good passenger?

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Kath Heiman

The front seat passenger needs to share the load.

Are you a good passenger?
Being the front seat passenger is not your ticket to switching off

Claiming the right to sit in the front passenger seat, by being the first person to call out "Shotgun!" means more than getting extra leg room.

Monash University conducted a study some years ago into the passenger influences on driver behaviour, Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) #180-2001. It showed that the relationship between the driver and passenger can be a critical determinant on driver responses and on vehicle safety.

Positive influences include warning the driver about risky activities such as speeding; promoting responsible driving such as pointing out approaching traffic hazards; assisting to maintain the driver’s attention on the road by keeping the driver company; and lowering the driver’s workload by dealing with distractions like mobile phones.

In the rally industry, the role of the front seat passenger is absolutely critical. Indeed, the co-driver controls virtually everything inside the vehicle except the steering wheel. They’re responsible for navigation, travel times and they monitor all the on-board gauges. Best of all, they get to yell directions at the driver and sound the horn as the vehicle hurtles along rough tracks.

For me, the passenger seat has never been my favourite place in the vehicle. I’ve been driving for too long for it to be easy. I have a tendency to shove my right foot against the firewall if the driver doesn’t brake in response to hazards at exactly the same time as I would. And I’m annoyingly quick with unsolicited driving advice.

Having said that, when I’m overlanding on rough roads, with a trailer in tow, I know that there’s a lot to be gained by leaning on someone with military-spec 4WD skills to help negotiate the more challenging terrain. So it’s lucky that I married one — and that we usually travel together.

On the occasions that I relinquish the wheel, there are plenty of useful jobs for me to be doing. While I know that my driver won’t thank me if I start sounding the horn, other functions that will be welcomed include navigation, maintaining a supply of cold drinks and snacks, washing the windscreen at fuel stops, and helping to unload the vehicle at the end of the day. When our four-year-old daughter’s on-board, my jobs expand to include managing her demands as she squirms in the back seat. With a mini whiteboard and washable pens, we can amuse ourselves by swapping drawings for kilometre after kilometre.

If you doubt the value of these sorts of tasks, consider this. Monash has found that children are 12 times more distracting to a driver than talking on a mobile phone (MUARC October 2013). And, did you know that — after mobile phone use — the most common causes of traffic accidents involve the driver changing the channel on the radio or using the GPS?

I still reckon that the best place to be in a vehicle is behind the steering wheel. But, at the end of the day, I know that operating a vehicle is a team effort. So next time you call "Shotgun!" think about your role as being as important as if you were protecting a stage coach driver, or taking the passenger seat in a rally car.

After all, being the front seat passenger is not your ticket to switching off. You’ve got a got a positive duty to contribute to your collective road safety.

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