Are You A Backseat Driver? Or Are You Plagued By One?

Distracted Driving is Bad Enough

We hear a lot about the dangers of distracted driving.  But what about “criticized driving”?  I’d like to see some statistics on that.  Behind money, household chores and sex, I would have to say that driving is probably right up there near the top when it comes to couples complaints in my counseling office.  Why is this?  I’m guessing it boils down to two things:  primal fear for your life, and respect.

Most people are used to being the driver.  We drive everywhere — to work, to the store, to far away places for work and fun.  So when suddenly we find ourselves in the seat with no steering wheel or brake, it’s hard for our brains to relax.  We are in charge most of the time, so switching off our “watchful” mode of thinking is difficult or impossible.  We scan the area in front of us continually for danger, just like a good driver.  It’s not even conscious.  When we see a stop sign, or a pedestrian, or a squirrel going back and forth on its decision, we don’t have the calming knowledge that there is a brake under our foot.

Your Brain Is Doing Its Job

Your brain, if it works well, will warn you whenever there is danger.  And it happens way more quickly than conscious thought.  We see the squirrel.  It still hasn’t made its decision.  And when we’re the passenger, we feel fear.  That’s because we have zero control over the car.  We may step on an imaginary break, or gasp, or cringe.  This is the primal fear I was talking about.  Whether we’re worried about the squirrel’s life, our own, or the backseat full of children, fear is a big deal.

This alone can be a problem for a couple, because when a driver sees the cringe, hears the gasp, or sees the impotent foot stomping the nonexistent brake, they may perceive criticism.  This is ridiculous, of course, because the passenger cannot help feeling a bit (or a lot) vulnerable when they have no control.  Especially if the brain is trained to be in the driver’s seat most of the time.  So why would a driver perceive criticism?

When We Feel Misunderstood

Okay, so you’re the driver.  You have a great driving record, you’ve never EVER killed a squirrel, and your passengers are safe with you.  So why is your passenger anxiously stomping a foot on the floor?  Because:  the brain inside the head of the person at the controls feels very different from the one with no control.  The driver feels nice and calm when seeing a minor threat up ahead.  Why wouldn’t they?  The driver’s brain knows full well they will hit the brakes, or steer away, or take whatever action is necessary.  Again, all of this is so fast.  It’s not even in conscious thought.  We just trust ourselves to do what is necessary, because we’ve done it for so long.

So when the passenger is scared, it also seems ridiculous.  It doesn’t seem to match up with the lack of threat that the driver perceives, so it almost seems like the passenger is being irrational.  But the more nuanced, finely tuned rational thought takes place in a different part of the brain than the one that controls fear response.  (It’s often very rational to avoid danger first, and ask questions later.  It’s how we survived as a species.)  But from the driver’s perspective, it may feel more like “Hey, why don’t you trust me?”

We Sometimes Make It Way Worse

When we really get into trouble is when it becomes more than a cringe or a helpless stomp, and turns into criticism.  That’s when the passenger starts (or continues, for decades) to pick apart the driver’s abilities or even character in an attempt to get them to be more cautious.  (P.S. this seems to backfire a lot).  So instead of admitting to feeling worried or scared, the passenger focuses on the faults of the driver.  It looks like this:  “Why do you have to speed all the time!” or “You are a maniac!”  Somehow these words don’t seem to keep our nation’s squirrels any safer, but they definitely contribute to the breakdown of many relationships.

So you’ve tried it your way for years and nothing changes.  What does work?  This might:  being very specific about what you want, preferably before leaving the driveway.  “I do not feel safe if you go over the speed limit,” is one calm sentence that comes to mind.  People can argue all day about what is safe, but you can’t really argue about how someone feels.  “I call out danger when I see it because I need to know you see it too,” is another good tip.

Yeah But He’s Going To Kill Me!

Yes, I get that.  That’s why, in addition to the passenger focusing on his or her own safety (rather than the driver’s idiocy) there is an equally important role for the driver to play.

Note:  if we are talking about a truly dangerous driver here, all bets are off.  You shouldn’t get behind the wheel with them if you want to live.  But don’t imagine that yelling or criticizing is going to help.  Driving school, counseling, or other options are probably needed.

Drivers:  Check Your Ego

Once we realize that our passenger cannot help but feel less safe than the driver, we can also realize that it’s not personal. Yes, the criticism may get pretty personal.  It’s a great idea to talk about that when you get home.  In fact, it’s a great idea to talk about before the two of you get into a car together ever again.  But in the meanwhile, it can save your relationship, and perhaps your life, to just listen.  Your first impulse may be defensiveness, but you may have noticed that doesn’t help. Just be respectful, and take in what your passenger says.  It may seem ridiculous that they want more following distance behind the car in front of you, but so what? Just do it.  Swallow your pride and be nice. The life you save may be your sex life.

It Takes Two

Both driver and passenger can form a pact to work on themselves in order to prevent DECADES OF BICKERING!  If you agree to the following, it could lead to a very happy road ahead:

When I am a passenger, I will work to remain calm.  I will try to focus on my book, or the scenery, or cows.  I will tell you when I feel scared. I will point out things that I perceive as possible danger.  I will point out cows.  But I will not criticize you, your character, or your driving in broad generalizations.  I know you are not a maniac, most of the time.

When I am a driver, I will work to remain calm.  I will not debate whether you should or should not be scared.  I will treat your requests with great importance, and work to accommodate your sense of safety.  Our relationship is important.  I know you are not a big baby, most of the time.

There, was that so hard?


Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, providing online counseling in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois.  She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.  She’s  had her backseat driver’s license revoked.

Contact her today for a consultation!