Study finds backseat drivers can be useful - sometimes

A new study has found backseat drivers aren’t always distracting or unhelpful, despite the stereotype.


But passengers needed to behave in certain ways to be helpful to drivers, according to the study by the University of Waikato psychology professor Samuel Charlton, a co-author of research for the Automobile Association.

"There's this perception out there that passengers can be distracting, nagging and so-forth, but after the age of 24 having a passenger in your car actually decreases the chance you're going to have a crash,” Professor Charlton told RNZ.

Of the 592 Kiwis in the study, the study found that more helpful passengers tended to:

  • Point out potential hazards the driver may not have seen
  • Check on the state of the driver to make sure they are not too tired or impaired to drive
  • Help with non-driving tasks like music, air-conditioning, food and drinks
  • Read maps and give directions in a timely matter
  • Carry out light-hearted “social chat”, but not when the driver needs to focus

Unhelpful passengers tended to:

  • Comment on the driver’s driving style, or another road user’s behaviour
  • Focus on things that the driver can’t change, like if they are running late
  • Give directions late
  • Tell the driver to speed up, honk their horn or run a red light
  • Make unexpected loud sounds that surprise the driver

Professor Charlton said it was important to have a conversation about what the driver expects before the journey.

"Having a passenger look out the left-hand window and telling you whether it's clear to go or not is very helpful," he said.

He said only criticising someone’s driving wasn’t helpful.

The study also found females were more likely to offer advice to male drivers. Male passengers rarely offered direct advice to other male drivers.

However, females were more likely to offer support, especially to male drivers. Male drivers were more likely to ask for support if their passenger was also male.

Evidence also showed that carrying passengers reduced crash risk compared to driving alone for those aged over 25.