Why you should care

Because some looks can kill.

My husband once tried to pass a Volkswagen that was stopped and waiting to turn, resulting in the destruction of both cars. No one was injured — apart from his bruised ego — and he admitted: “This wouldn’t have happened if you had been in the car.”

Yet, if I’d been there to scream “Stop!” and he’d missed that vehicle, there still would’ve been damage. Experience has taught me that my in-car gasps are met with him narrowly averting danger while shouting something like: “I see the damn car, I know what I’m doing.” Sometimes I’m then blamed for putting us all in danger by driving him to distraction, which psychologists tell me is a common refrain between couples. Sharing my frustrations at a party, a friend’s husband offered an obnoxious but interesting solution: Wear a blindfold. His wife rolled her eyes at the idea, but statistics and psychology may be on his side.

Passengers with gripes need to grin and bear it until it’s safe to comment.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that there were 904,000 distraction-related crashes in 2013 — 16 percent of all collisions — 2,910 of which proved fatal. In the U.K., meanwhile, nearly 1 in 10 drivers admitted to crashing while distracted, 26 percent due to so-called “back-seat” drivers. Nancy White, the director of public relations at AAA, points to research that shows how normal conversations with adult passengers “do not necessarily introduce a high level of risk,” because even-keeled adults tend to respond in polite ways and can actually help drivers avoid hazards. But she also warns that a passenger commenting “on the driver’s actions and decisions in an attempt to control the vehicle” — and let’s face it, that’s what spouses are doing — can be very distracting.

This is NOT to say that the passenger is wrong. Indeed, quite the opposite is often the case, says Leon James, a professor of driving psychology at the University of Hawaii. “Women as passengers are calmer, better able to see what’s going on,” he says, noting that a man is almost always the driver when a couple ride together in the car. But cultural and biological notions of male supremacy, James says, get played out in the car, resulting in the woman often being insulted when she tries to tell a man there’s something scary about his driving technique. Sure, there are exceptions — sometimes women are the aggressors, while the men remain calm — but mostly, James says, it’s the women who are more conciliatory.

But right and wrong may be irrelevant, because the distraction and hostility can be more dangerous than the original driving offense. Suggestions threaten the man’s ego, James says, which is dangerous because it splits the driver’s attention and intensifies emotion. Fights lead to an “emotional hijacking” of one’s brain, and “you become more like a Neanderthal man,” with hostile, primitive responses that punish passengers for expressing their fears. And men who berate women drivers prove just as dangerous, splitting their attention and often intimidating them. Cambridgeshire-based couples therapist Sarah Solman says general relationship problems can also spill over into the car, to become the “icing on the cake if something’s been bubbling underneath.”

Luckily, both she and James offer a few solutions, with Solman recommending that both sides admit to having faults and showing respect. James takes that a step further and says critiques should never be made in the heat of the moment because of the dangers involved. Keep those fears in check, he says, “until the situation is calm or until you’re out of the car.” And even then, he suggests that passengers place the emphasis on themselves, as in “I was so scared. I don’t know if I can handle riding with you,” rather than putting the onus on the driver.

Passengers with gripes need to grin and bear it until it’s safe to comment, according to James, who says that looking away is really the “only thing you can do.” The blindfold idea isn’t so immodest after all.

Would you blindfold the back-seat driver who loves you? Let us know.

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