Back-seat drivers mean well but they could steer you wrong

More often than not, Guy Mitchell dreads Saturday mornings. The Albany man cited a recent incident w
Back-seat driving is not only annoying - it can be dangerous. Spouses can some of the biggest culprits.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Back-seat driving is not only annoying - it can be dangerous. Spouses can some of the biggest culprits.

More often than not, Guy Mitchell dreads Saturday mornings.

“Oh, let me tell you, for a guy who loves nothing more than taking my car out for a joy ride, it’s a whole different ball game when the weekend rolls around and I have to help my mom run errands. Don’t get me wrong. She’s a great woman, but when it comes to back-seat drivers, she is the worst. She points out every pothole, every stop sign, every yellow light, every biker, every everything. She has me stepping on my brakes left and right. It’s a bad situation, and I don’t want to yell at her because she’s my mother. But something’s got to give.”

The Albany man cited a recent incident when he was transporting his 81-year-old mom, Agnes, to the grocery store.

“I got her in the car, helped buckle her in the front seat and then proceeded to pull away from the curb. I was pulling out into heavy traffic, when she yelled: ‘Look out,’ making me slam on my brakes. Of course, all the cars behind me got up in arms because I could have caused an accident.”

Worst of all, Mitchell said, when he turned to his snarling passenger in an effort to see what all the raucous was about, it seemed as though she was “hallucinating.”

“She told me I almost hit a car. I looked around, and there were no other cars in sight. It’s a one-way street for crying out loud. It is like she sees things that don’t even exist. Mark my words. One of these days she is going to get us into an accident. The way I see it, it’s inevitable.”

Unwanted advice

Back-seat drivers — those pesky passengers, a majority of which are actually situated in the front seat, can’t seem to refrain from shouting unwanted or unneeded driving advice.

Offenders can range from friends to family members, but spouses, studies show, are usually the ones at fault for this bum behavior.

Erin Nusbaum of East Greenbush said she and her husband came to an agreement long ago with regard to driving together.

“When we first got married, we taunted each other. I was always yelling at him for speeding and tailgating and stopping short. And when I was driving, he would yell at me for driving too slow, driving too close to the side of the road and just about anything else you could imagine,” she said.

But that all changed when the couple had to sell one of its cars several years ago.

“Suddenly, we found ourselves driving around together all the time. If our marriage was going to survive, we quickly realized that both of us were going to have to bite down hard on our tongues. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve managed to shake being so critical. Now, when I drive, he keeps quiet. He knows he’s not to mention anything road-related to me, and if he does it’d better be something super-important. I am the same way with him. It has made both our lives so much easier,” Nusbaum said.

Annoying, dangerous

Sure, they’re utterly annoying.

Now, research shows back-seat drivers and their notorious antics are also downright dangerous.

Motorists who listen to any kind of conversation at the wheel, in fact, can have their concentration on the road ahead compromised by nearly 40 percent.

According to a study published recently in the journal Brain Research, the brain struggles to cope when it is forced to listen to a conversation and drive simultaneously. That break in focus is even more pronounced when one is trying to combat an onslaught of negative verbal commands, such as those waged by back-seat drivers.

Using brain scans, researchers investigated the impact on brain activity of having to listen to and understand language while also performing a simulated driving task.

Driving and listening are two different activities known to draw on different parts of the brain, but the study’s authors said one can affect the other.

Researchers connected volunteers to a brain-imaging device while they were steering a car along a winding road on a driving simulator.

Participants steered while listening to general knowledge statements and verifying them as true or false using a response button in one hand.

Reaction time and response accuracy were monitored. Performance on the simulated driving was also assessed.

When compared with tests on undisturbed drivers, there was a 37 percent decrease in accuracy.

The findings indicated that the addition of a listening challenge reduced the brain activity linked to performing a driving task.

Having to perform both tasks at once produced a significant deterioration in driving accuracy, the psychologists said.

Difficult to curb

Pam Delap, who has owned the Adirondack Advantage Driving School in Loudonville with her husband, Ronald, for the past 25 years, said the “actions” of back-seat drivers are, to some degree, instinctual, but that hardly makes them right.

“For a lot of back-seat drivers, it’s just a quick response,” she said. “It’s like when somebody comes up behind us and we jump. We are just reacting to what is going on.”

She said when these same people are placed in a car where they must relinquish control over a situation, these people tend to react to stimuli by grabbing the dashboard, slamming their foot on an imaginary brake and even clenching their teeth and letting loose with perturbing noises.

“It’s a reaction just like in other situations, but in this case, it is very distracting and annoying to the driver,” she said.

When Delap’s son received his license about a year ago, Pam learned first-hand what back-seat driving is all about.

She said she had to make a real effort to avert her eyes and keep her lips sealed.

“I had to bring books or my laptop with me,” she said. “I now try not to pay too much attention to what he is doing, she said, noting that harping on those who don’t drive like you will not change their ways. It’s just going to create stress and may even make them drive unsafely.

Eric Stigberg, public affairs manager with the American Automobile Association in Scotia, said anyone getting behind the wheel needs to be mentally focused on the task at hand, and that includes minimizing any distractions.

“I think it is so important to be in control inside the vehicle. Your mental state in any driving situation is so important.”

Staying in control

Rudy Nydegger, chief of psychology at Ellis Hospital and professor of psychology and management at Union College, said confronting back-seat drivers in a kind way is often essential.

“Say, ‘I know you are trying to help, but I am very distracted.’ If it ever gets to the point where you think it is too much, Nydegger suggests pulling over and having the other person drive.

If you are a back-seat driver, Nydegger said, really ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. “You’ll realize it’s usually best to keep your mouth shut,” he said.

Nydegger added that even if a particular passenger is a better driver, knows the quickest route around town and can maneuver in the tightest of quarters, it is almost never appropriate to comment unless the driver specifically asks for help.

Even then, just say what is asked of you. Keep it short and sweet.

Linda King of Schenectady knows very well the ramifications of tooling around town with an irksome person in tow.

“It was about two years ago, and I had my older brother with me. I was driving along, taking a right turn, when he started screaming about how I was going to hit the curb,” she said.

“I got so nervous that I overcorrected and wound up sideswiping the car in the other lane. Luckily, we weren’t hurt, but I don’t believe I was anywhere near the curb, and even if I were, I would have been better off hitting it. To this day, believe it or not, there are hard feelings between me and my brother. I know one thing for sure. When I am driving with someone, I zip it. It’s just not worth it.”

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