Being a Back Seat Driver Isn’t an Easy Job

Even though I’m perfectly capable of driving, my husband generally does most of it when we travel. This designates me to the position of back seat driver, or more accurately in my case, passenger-side assistant driver, or even better, co-driver.

On a recent road trip to my daughter’s, I told my husband (only partially tongue-in-cheek) that I didn’t think he fully realized the degree of vigilance and attentiveness this position requires. “Oh, I think I do,” he said. “Believe me.”

It’s a fact that even when I’m totally tired I feel compelled to keep my eyes wide open so that I can dart them from the mirror to my blind spot, then around the back, then to my husband’s blind spot in order to stay completely aware of traffic behind us, to either side of us and in front of us. “Just relax and go to sleep,” my husband will sometimes say, but I can’t bring myself to do that. Would a co-pilot in a plane consider taking a quick snooze?

Of course, unlike a co-pilot who has real instruments on his side of the cockpit, there isn’t  actually any driving equipment on the passenger side of a car—not even brakes. That doesn’t stop me from pressing my foot down on the van floorboard, as I lean back stiffly, my right hand gripping the door arm rest. Even though these actions don’t actually reduce the speed of our van, they do communicate to my husband that in my humble opinion, he needs to slow down.

Let me make clear that my husband is not a bad driver. We’re both fairly decent drivers. Our driving styles, however, are drastically different. My husband drives far more assertively than I do, applying the brakes only when absolutely necessary. If there is a slower vehicle in front of us, he moves full speed to within just a few feet of this vehicle before swinging into the adjacent lane and passing it. In contrast, I like to start applying the brakes (real or imagined) an adequate distance from a slower vehicle–many miles before, my husband claims. Sometimes I’m even content just to lower my speed and continue driving behind a slower vehicle, especially if it’s a huge diesel truck. I regard such trucks with the same suspicion and apprehension that I imagine a tuna regards a killer shark. I’d just as soon not be in a truck’s radar or draw any attention whatsoever to our puny (in comparison) van. My husband, in contrast, has absolutely no such a “monster of the freeway” phobia. He swings around trucks with the bravado of a conquistador and without the slightest regard for this giant road creature’s ability to crunch us. “Neener, Neener,” he might as well be shouting.

But I recognize that my husband has the perfect right to drive differently than I do, so I generally keep my mouth shut, for the most part, with the exception of those times when I don’t keep my mouth shut.  “Slow down . . . slooooow down,” I feel compelled to repeat under my breath when I feel we’re going too fast around curves especially those with extremely high drop offs. In fact, I’ve become proactive.  I read the speed limit sign to him as soon as there’s a change. “It’s forty-five here,” I mention, matter-of-factly. If he doesn’t seem to hear me, I’ll repeat, “It’s forty-five,” my voice increasing slightly in volume. If he continues to ignore me, I’ll state the speed our van is going. “We’re going fifty.” Then I’ll inform him of the amount we’re driving over the speed limit. “That’s five miles over.”

Speaking of high drop offs, if there’s say, a body of water below, I go over in my mind what we would do if our van should plunge over the railing. I’ve heard to go out the windows not the doors, but have never heard if power windows even work under water. Just in case, I keep my index finger poised right there on the window’s power button in hopes I’d have the presence of mind to press it on the way down.

There are many more duties I consider to be my responsibilities as an assistant driver: weather reporting; reading a map and giving directions; (sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly)  providing snacks (torn into extremely small, easy-to-handle pieces) and, if we’re listening to a book on cd, figuring out when the cd has ended and if so, how to switch it. I also check the dashboard at intervals not only to stay aware of our speed, but to try to determine whether we have enough gas to make it to the next town so that we won’t be caught again in the position we found ourselves that one time when we made it to a station on fumes and prayers. I consider it my job as well to watch my husband carefully for signs of fatigue, insisting we pull into rest stops if he looks tired. “You okay?” I always ask when we’re ready to pull out again.  “Do you want me to take a turn? I can drive you know.”

But unless he’s so sick he’s practically foaming at the mouth, my husband will answer, “I’m fine. I don’t mind driving. I enjoy it.”  And I sincerely hope that that’s true—that he really does like to drive as much as he seems to. Deep down, however, I strongly suspect it’s more like this:  He’d rather drive and be somewhat aggravated at my assistance, than be in the co-driver position himself, and be completely aggravated by my driving. In other words, he can’t handle this job.


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