The U.S. Department of Transportation notes that using a cell phone use while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that 16 percent of fatal crashes and fatalities — and 20 percent of injury crashes — involve distracted driving.
Even when you’re a passenger in a car, rather than the driver, the issue of distracted driving affects you. If the vehicle is involved in a collision because your driver is distracted, anyone in the car could be injured.
Don’t contribute to the problem
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “Passengers are one of the most frequently reported causes of distraction, with young children being four times more distracting than adults and infants being eight times more distracting.” As a minimum, you need to train yourself to be considerate of everyone’s safety when you are a passenger. Do not distract the driver’s attention from the task of driving. If there are small children in the car, you can see to their needs so the driver is not distracted. Every effort you make to remove sources of distraction is a vote in favor of road safety.
Take the pressure off the driver
An important 2004 study by researchers at the University of Utah found that passengers can be a definite asset in the car, at least when compared to cell phone use. The researchers note that “passenger conversations differ from cell phone conversations because the surrounding traffic becomes a topic of the conversation, helping driver and passenger to share situation awareness, and mitigating the potential effects of conversation on driving.”
You can help the driver avoid potential distractions. For example, you can read maps or answer the cell phone for critical messages, as needed, ending the temptation for the driver to try to manage those tasks while driving. If you are in the front passenger seat, you can control ventilation or adjust the background music so the driver can concentrate on the road. You can pay close attention to signs and landmarks, if you are traveling in an unfamiliar area. Work to be an asset to the journey, rather than another distraction.
Speak up if your driver is dangerous
No one wants to be confrontational, and it’s especially difficult to do so if the driver is a close friend. But if you are a passenger and the driver repeatedly engages in unsafe behavior, you must speak up. You have a duty to defend the wellbeing of everyone in the car, and also to protect other travelers on the road.
Approach this as kindly as possible, and — of course! — don’t start an argument while the vehicle is moving. As a final resort, if you cannot get the driver to focus on the road, you will need to find some other transportation. As one Canadian provincial transportation department puts it, “No one has the right to put you at risk for their convenience. Say no to any behavior by your driver that draws attention away from the road.” Your life and safety is worth more than any disruption in your relationship with the driver.