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Tips to avoid carpool conflicts

So, you think carpooling is as easy as hopping in and speeding through HOV lanes until you get to work? Think again. Buckle in and take these clues from the Well-Mannered Traveler.
Talking on cell phones, eating and smoking are issues to bring up before hopping in the carpool lane.
Talking on cell phones, eating and smoking are issues to bring up before hopping in the carpool lane.Duane Hoffmann /

Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy, and much longer, ride.

Earlier this week, the folks at the Texas Transportation Institute confirmed what any highway commuter already knows: traffic is bad and it’s getting worse. According to the agency's Urban Mobility Study, during 2004, the nation’s drivers spent 4 billion hours stuck in traffic. But in 2005, traffic jams sucked up 4.2 billion hours — an average of 38 hours per driver.

Most commuters spend those 38 hours alone in their cars. I used to.

For years, I drove to work alone in an unreliable old car with a broken radio. Stuck in traffic, I’d fantasize. Not just about winning the lottery or owning that silver BMW inching along in front of me, but about all the time and money I could save by carpooling.

Unfortunately, no one wanted to ride in my stinky jalopy. But when my new car arrives, I plan to join those seemingly care-free folks speeding along in the HOV lanes. To get ready, I went cruising for advice on the latest in carpool courtesies. Hop in, buckle up and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

For starters, I discovered that lot of folks won’t even consider joining a carpool because they worry about being inconvenienced and having to put up with the annoying habits of other riders. But then I talked with Tom Devlin, a transportation planner for Metro’s Rideshare program in King County, Washington. He says although some carpools can indeed be quirky and “dysfunctional like some families,” with planning, patience and common sense, pretty much everyone can be a well-mannered carpooler.

“The first thing we advise people to do when starting a carpool is to get together for coffee and work out the rules.”


“Definitely,” says Devlin. “You should make a set of rules and have everyone sign them.” For starters, he says, you’ll need to decide who’s going to drive, what costs will be shared, where your carpool will meet and how long you’re going to wait for everyone to arrive. He urges carpoolers to be strict about this last point so everyone’s day doesn’t get off to a late start. “If you say the 7 a.m. carpool will leave no later than 7:03 a.m., be sure to enforce that rule so latecomers learn to set their alarms a little bit earlier.”

Of course, once your carpool is on the road, there are plenty of other issues to be worked out, such as:

Too hot, too cold or just right? Will the driver or someone else be in charge of the temperature controls or will it be up for a vote everyday?

Talk radio or classical music?  Will your carpool be “radio on” or “radio off?” If on, who chooses the station and, more importantly, the volume?

Chit-chat or not?  Will your carpool be a chat-fest or does everyone prefer to travel in silence? If conversation is encouraged, will there be topics that are off limits, such as politics, religion, the irritating habits of spouses and co-workers or gossip about the sexual habits of the boss or absent carpoolers?

Coffee and cigarettes. Will smoking, eating or drinking be allowed? Or will, for example, coffee be allowed but burgers be off-limits? “We had to ban lox and bagels,” one longtime carpooler told me, “because of one guy who always brought his breakfast bagel on board and stank of onions.”

Scents and sensibilities. Will your carpool be scent-free or will it be OK to climb aboard doused in perfume, aftershave or hairspray? And what if someone has bad body odor?

Side-trips:  Does your carpool only go from here to there or are folks willing to make stops along the way for take-out, dry cleaning or last-minute birthday gifts?

Phoning home.  “One of the biggest complaints we get is cell phone use by the driver,” says Devlin. I strongly discourage cell phone use by anyone in a carpool. Do you really think everyone else needs to know what you’re having for dinner?”

If everyone signs off on the rules, says Devlin, a carpool should have a smooth ride. But even with written rules, plenty of situations can create carpool conflict. For example, what if the driver is having a bad day, generally drives erratically or is doing something that has passengers stepping on imaginary brake pedals or gripping the seat cushions?

In a situation like this, says Timothy Smith, author of “Crashproof Your Kids:  Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver,” you might gently tell the driver: “I know you're a good driver, but your driving right now is making me nervous. Please (slow down, pay attention, stay in your lane, etc.) Thanks.”

Conversely, Smith offers some useful phrases for folks dealing with backseat drivers. One option: I understand you're just trying to help, but most car crashes are caused by distractions. Please let me focus on the road so I can keep us all safe.” If that doesn’t work, try this: “Whoever makes the next comment on my driving walks. Deal?"

So is carpooling a good deal? For folks who want to save time, money and wear-and-tear on their vehicles, it certainly seems so. But there can be other benefits as well. Devlin says plenty of people who first met in carpools go on to become friends who meet outside the carpool for everything from barbecues and birthday parties to trips to the track.  And some carpool friendships morph into something more serious. When he lived in New Jersey, organization consultant Mark Sachs was in a carpool with Luann Korona. As they shared the backseat, their romance blossomed, mile by mile. They now share a home in a Washington, D.C. suburb. Married for 21 years, the couple no longer carpools, but Korona says she’s definitely the better driver.