Readers may want to know my qualifications for writing this article. I have extensive experience as a passenger in car pools, but I also have experience as the driver. Cars driven by me tend to stop, even to pick up strangers, until the seats are full.
I know you’ve been told you should never pick up strangers. I say, much depends on the situation. I’ve picked up strangers all my life, and the worst thing that’s happened was that, while I owned a Renault (French for “junkpile”), passengers used to display nervousness and even nausea when I was wrestling with the gear shift. Carjacking exists, but, as with all violent crimes, the news media can make it sound approximately a million times more common than it is; it happens fewer than a half-dozen times per year, nationwide. And I don’t want to make anyone nervous about regular car pool arrangements, but the fact is that most violent crimes committed these days involve medications used by apparently normal employed people, so someone who’s worked in your building for fifteen years may be more likely to attack you than a stranger is.
So, my first tip: 1. Accept the fact that we do not live in a “safe” world. Some risk-taking behavior, like driving without your seat belt, offers so little benefit that taking the risk is stupid. Other risk-taking behavior, like sharing your car with someone in need, offers enough benefit that not taking the risk is stupid. You are far more likely to be killed in a collision with a drunk driver than to be harmed by anything a passenger in your car is likely to do. You might as well decide to live and die with courage...who knows, the life you save by keeping someone from driving under the influence might be your own.
2. Have a realistic understanding of what you’re doing when you share your car. It’s unlikely that you’re saving the life or even the health of someone you offer a lift across town. If the passenger is incompetent to drive, you’re as likely to be saving your own life as his. If the passenger is competent to walk, you are saving the other person some time. You are also reducing the depletion of fossil fuels, thus slowing the rise of gas prices, and reducing the amount of petrochemical fuel emissions, thus improving your local environment, for yourself. Passengers should say “Thank you” and should offer to help with your gas expenses, but you shouldn't try to make a whole conversation out of it.
3. If you stop for total strangers, use judgment and be careful. As a rule I think we should all have enough courage to offer a lift to a single individual carrying a bag of groceries, a gas can, or a baby along the highway. A group of men standing around what appears to be a stalled car might be a very different situation. Know your community. In some places the police department’s policy is not to waste time trying to help disabled cars (or drivers); in other places the police can and will offer more help than you could. Of course, you should always stop for people you know, including neighbors who are “familiar strangers,” unless you know they prefer to be walking. Calling the police to help a friend or "familiar stranger" is an insult.
4. Don’t have any agenda other than getting everyone safely to the destination agreed upon. In at least one case, a murderer confessed that although he had no criminal intentions when he hitched a ride, he became angry enough to kill the evangelical Christian driver who couldn’t seem to stop trying to “save” him. While most of us don’t commit violent crimes merely because others behave in obnoxious ways, like persisting in talking about things we don’t care to discuss, we do become angry enough to let these behaviors break up social, professional, and car-pool relationships.
As a general rule the driver’s wishes need to prevail. Drivers are certainly entitled to tell passengers not to distract the driver by talking, blocking the view, or moving around in the back seat, while the car is in motion. Drivers are also entitled to ask passengers to talk or sing if that helps the driver stay alert. Drivers who feel an emotional need to “win” arguments by steamrollering others’ opinions may be helped by counselling...but drivers who feel that an argument is becoming emotional enough to be a distraction or health hazard have the right to say so.
5. The owner of the car is entitled to ban smoking. On long trips the owner is, however, morally obligated to stop for cigarette breaks before tobacco addicts start twitching and gagging. And although a car is an efficiently contained smoking area, the owner of the car will sleep better at night if he or she can get enough control of his or her addictions to abstain from smoking while driving with nonsmokers.
6. The owner and driver of the car is (or are) also responsible for setting policies on food, drinks, and gum. These policies can be changed at any time. I used to car-pool with a woman who liked to share an overloaded take-out meal from a local restaurant. One day, after she’d moved to a different neighborhood and become pregnant, I took one of our favorite meals to work, and the smell of the package made her sick. It’s crucial that car pools avoid making the driver too sick to drive.
7. When the ground is wet, passengers will probably be more, not less, comfortable if towels, newspapers, and/or plastic bags are used to protect the seats and floor.
8. There are still a few fossils out there who claim to feel offended when people buckle their seat belts. Let passengers know you’re not one of them. Don’t worry about their decision to use or not use the shoulder belt; the choice between whiplash injuries and broken ribs is up to them. Do insist that they buckle up so that, in case of an accident, they won’t fall on top of you.
9. Some people were taught that it’s “charming” to ask “Don’t you want to stop?” or “Is it too cold for you?” when they are the ones who want to stop, change the heat setting, etc. Others find this behavior confusing and annoying. If you notice that someone else looks uncomfortable, and you are willing to let that person’s needs prevail, I recommend taking a poll. If you want others to meet your needs, there’s nothing “charming” about trying to push someone else into stating your preference, which they don’t necessarily share. You might as well speak plainly. “I need a restroom break.” “I’d like to turn on the heat, if that’s all right with everybody.”
10. Personally I don’t think drivers should ask passengers for gas money. Unless you drove miles out of your way, you’re not spending more money on gas because they are in the car. You’re getting the benefit of reducing pollution and using the express lanes reserved for fully packed vehicles.
Does this mean that passengers should freeload forever? Of course not. The idea of a car pool is that either everyone takes turns using their cars, at their own expense, or else non-drivers contribute an equal amount to the total cost of transportation for the group. Passengers should offer.
If a full-time passenger in your car pool never pays for gas, first make sure nobody has sabotaged the person’s normal instinct to offer a contribution. Someone who has been told, “Oh, don’t worry about paying until you’re settled in, making money, etc.,” may still be feeling unsettled after six months, or may not have any realistic hope of making as much money as the speaker was making during the next ten years—or ever. If you have said this kind of thing, you my need to plan an embarrassing clarification. “Well, you’ve been in town for three months now...do you think X per week is your fair share of the gas money?”
A popular bumper sticker from the 1970s said, “Gas, Grass, or [another rhyming word]—Nobody Rides Free!” If your business does not involve raising donkeys, a more appropriate way to encourage passengers to pay up might be to promote the work of deserving writers. E-mail articles like this one to all car pool members who have e-mail. Print these articles and share them with everyone else.