Rules For Riding In Cars With Strangers


Mostly, I like to use long drives for thinking about the implosion of old relationships or singing along to a-ha. When you have other people in the car with you, particularly other people to whom you are not directly related and who do not automatically grant you a degree of latitude in travel etiquette, this isn’t really possible. Traveling with pseudo-strangers (on business trips, college-era Thanksgiving ride-shares, awkward carpooling to Marietta, Georgia with the only two other people in your town interested in historic Civil War re-enactments) requires its own set of rules to govern the sharing of a confined space for an extended period of time while keeping awkwardness to a minimum.

Never say no to a rest stop

There will never be enough opportunities to pee. While other people are smoking or standing in line for coffee or stocking up on Slim Jims, beat a path to the bathroom. Everyone will be distracted and it will save you the trouble of having to wage an internal battle later over whether to hold it or break down and ask your boss if he can pull into a Texaco so you can go number #1.


Stay awake

Not only does everyone but the dewiest of newborns look like a total doofus when they do that slack-jawed, bent-neck, dozing in the passenger seat thing, falling asleep en route might mean missing out on seeing Carhenge or a giant statue of a wooly mammoth. You never get over sleeping through Carhenge; trust me. Furthermore, I assert that the very least the non-driver(s) can do on a long trip is to stay awake and amuse the person behind the wheel with witty bon mots or frequent and irritating entreaties to play the license plate game again. Also, your wakefulness means that you’re ideally positioned to wrench the wheel from his hands and steer for the shoulder should the driver himself happen to nod off.

No backseat driving

Unless someone explicitly asks you to navigate for them (and even then I’m reluctant – nothing devolves into weird Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory faster than bickering over what the correct lead time is when suggesting a lane change), or unless there’s a clear possibility of imminent passenger or pedestrian harm, it’s prudent to keep mum about driving decisions. Besides, being chauffeured through the mountains of Bosnia in a Citroen that lacks snow tires while balancing a huge jar of homemade fermented cabbage on your lap (true story) is the stuff that prime anecdotes are made of.

Avoid fiddling with the controls

I find this one difficult. I am always cold, I hate having the windows down, and talk radio fills me with quiet rage. But I grudgingly accept that if isn’t my car, I don’t get to call the shots. So blast Beck (of the Odelay or Glenn variety, your call) all you want, some of us will just stare out the window and muse on whether our old college boyfriend has emerged from the closet yet.

Resist the urge to be intimate

No, not that kind of intimate (although you should probably take a pass on that, too), but the faux intimacy that is born from hours spent in close proximity to someone or multiple someones you know little about and the realization that you have exhausted all of the superficial small talk topics in your repertoire (So, how about that local sports team?). You let your mind wander and imagine you’re in a wagon convoy bound for the California gold rush instead of on your way to a supply chain conference in Topeka. Suddenly, you’re quizzing people about their five-year plans and telling fellow conference carpoolers all about your blog. Don’t fall into that trap. If you ever have to see these people again (especially in a professional capacity), the more you can resist spicing up the silence with personal prodding or revelations of your own, the less kicking yourself that will be required when they join Twitter just to follow you.

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image – Andrew Yool