The backseat driver principle

The driver overestimates his control over the situation (including his own car as well as others on the road). The backseat driver (“Whoa–you’re taking that curve too fast!”) underestimates the driver’s control. As a driver, I listen to the passengers because they provide a useful corrective. Even if the backseat driver is sometimes annoying, it makes sense to listen.

More generally: I’ll take anybody’s advice seriously.

5 thoughts on “The backseat driver principle

  1. As a driver, I am constantly annoyed by "helpful" passengers screaming or blabbing at the most inopportune moments, when I'm trying to concentrate on the traffic around. There is a good reason why buses have a sign "Do not talk with the driver."

    Drive now, chat later claims that drivers talking on phones are twice as likely to miss a traffic signal, their reaction time is slower to the signals they do detect, their risk of causing a crash increases by 400%, this amount of risk is the same as if the driver were driving legally intoxicated, using hands free equipment does not improve driver performance. It is the phone conversation that distracts! While the passengers do shut up when they are scared, it's still a distraction.

  2. I think you forgot to take into account the amount of information the driver has and how much information the passenger *doesn't* have. The driver is more in tune with the state of the roadway, the sensitivity of the brakes, the tightness of the steering, &c.; the passenger is only able to imagine all those critical factors. Further, the passenger & driver do not necessarily have the same driving styles or abilities.

    Surely, a passenger may be useful in some cases; e.g., spotting hazards in complex situations. But generally speaking, I imagine a back-seat driver annoying the driver and making the road more, not less, dangerous. I don't see them as distractions on par with cell phones, however, since a passenger is cognizant of the road conditions and (hopefully) knows when to shut up.


  3. This blog entry inspired me to try to find any studies on whether passengers increase or decrease the risk of accidents. I found this:

    This study is an experiment using a driving simulator, and the results suggest the effect of a passenger on accident risk varies — passengers reduce the accident risk for older drivers, but increase it for young drivers. Makes sense, I guess.

  4. John,

    I agree that the driver has much more knowledge than the passenger. I just think the driver has less control over the situation than he thinks he has. Similarly, the passenger naturally underestimates the driver's control, and the truth lies somewhere in between.

    On the other hand, I see the point about distractions. I'm not thinking so much about passengers who are just yapping, I'm more thinking about the passenger who says, "Hey, watch out for that truck!"

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