“Riding shotgun” originated as the practice of an armed passenger sitting at the front of a stagecoach (or, as I call it, a pre-car) with the driver to deter bandits. Today, the responsibilities of shotgun are even greater. In addition to fending off thugs who are trying to rob you of your precious cargo (i.e. your Heinekeg), you are a navigator, a copilot, and, possibly most importantly, a DJ.

Among the ways of determining who rides shotgun, there are universal rules that are all but written in stone; however, if a man’s house is his castle, then his car is his… equally sovereign… chariot(?), and therefore should be allowed plenty of room for creativity in how a shotgunner is ultimately determined.

For our scenario, you’ve just been selected to shotgun your road trip! Congratulations! Here’s what you need to know to get you and your crew to your destination on time and in style. Don’t screw this up!

Navigator

As a navigator, it is your job to ensure the driver’s mind is free of distraction, allowing him to focus on the road. He should not have to worry about when the next turn is coming or if he is going to wind up going through a state with Waffle Houses in it. That’s why it is important to know the route.

Doing it live has a time and place. If you’re going on a free-spirited, open-ended, other-contractionaly-described road trip, just go where the winds will take you. If you have an itinerary because you’re trying to squeeze 1,000 miles of driving into a four day weekend, it’s best to have a plan. Keep those directions out or Google Maps open on your phone (using Apple Maps is the adult equivalent to filling your pockets with raw bacon, hopping a fence, and running from the junkyard dogs). It is your responsibility to let the driver know when turns are coming up. If you’re driving in a city, give him at least two blocks notice, especially if he is in the left lane. On the highway, give him a mile warning, two or more if he has to cut across several lanes of busier traffic.

Navigator is not a glorious job, and a good navigator gets no praise. Nobody credits him with how quickly and smoothly the drive went. But inadvertently send everyone back towards Kentucky at hour seven of your 13 hour drive, and boy are you in for it. Your mind should be set solely on not screwing up. No pressure.

Copilot

Your life is in your driver’s hands. You better keep him happy. As copilot, you should be your pilot’s best friend. Make it as easy as possible for him to focus on not killing you all in a 23-car pileup. What does this mean?

First of all, you need to keep him awake. This is especially crucial on long, overnight hauls, but also important any time before the sun comes up or goes down. Keep him talking, poke him when his eyes droop, pour Red Bull down his gullet when he yawns. The worst thing you could do is fall asleep on him. Because have you ever tried driving with a limp body on top of you? If you have, please don’t answer truthfully; lie to us for all of our sakes. The gravest mistake you could make is to fall asleep in your seat. The last thing you want to do is lull your driver to sleep with your own rhythmic snoring.

Be your driver’s hands. Everybody knows that if a driver doesn’t keep his hands at ten and two, his car will explode faster than a Pinto in a fender bender. If you’re going on a long trip, chances are the driver is going to need to respond to some texts or calls (just kidding; who talks on the phone these days?) or require nourishment. Write that text for him, spoon that chili into his mouth, apply ointment to that weird rash he refuses to tell you the origin of.

Be his eyes. If you’re like me, limited by the confines of space and time, you want to get where you are going eventually. It’s hard to obey speed limits AND get places. So, if you’re driver is feeling the need for speed, keep your eyes on the sides of the road for your two worst enemies: cops and deer. If you’ve got out of state plates, they’ll pull you over like that! And then you have the cops to worry about too. If you see something, say something. Worst case scenario of a false alarm is you yell cop or deer and your driver slows down a little bit. Worst case scenario, if you don’t say something, is that bugger jumps in front of your car. And you can’t be responsible for the death of a cop. Not again.

Most importantly, you have to be ready to take over in the case of the driver suddenly dying of a heart attack. Or, ya know, like he dozes off or something. A bit of advice for steering from the passenger seat, keep your eyes down the road. It is tempting to look directly in front of the car, but this perspective will cause you to drift and overcompensate. I recommend practicing driving from the passenger seat on your own several times before your next trip.

Bartender

This is an often-overlooked responsibility. In fact, it’s so overlooked that I even failed to introduce it earlier. Nobody likes a cranky, uptight pilot (think more like Denzel Washington in Flight). Be sure to keep your driver loose with some classic roadies. Here are some great options:

  • Shaken martinis are always a class move, but beware, they spill easily; be sure to encourage your driver to down them as quickly as possible.
  • Beer. Protip: seat belt buckles make great bottle openers, something most auto manufactures want to advertise, but don’t because of what Donald Trump would call “political correctness” and the rest of us would call “common sense.”
  • If you and the other passengers are feeling left out, simply get a game of slap the bag going.

If I’ve learned anything from commercials, it’s that as long as I say “drink responsibly,” I am waived of all liability for what you decide to do with this information.

DJ

I know what you are thinking: “I am already juggling so much! I need to put down these clubs and take care of my shotgunner responsibilities. Wait? There’s more?!” Admit it, I read your mind. Don’t worry, just because this last responsibility is the most difficult and stressful, does not mean you need to relinquish your shotgun duties to a much abler man. You can do this! I believe in you. Well, I believe in three simple approaches to ensuring you, your driver, and the other passengers all enjoy the trip as much as the destination (if that destination ok, but not that great, still worth seeing though).

Be prepared. You’ve known this trip was coming up. You know the people you are driving with. You should have some semblance of an idea as to what music each person likes. Create a playlist in advance. Have a healthy mix of songs. I’m not talking just a variety of genres. I’m talking songs that bring out different moods in people. To list a few, have some sing alongs (think Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody), chill tunes (if Float On by Modest Mouse is not on your playlist, the passenger behind you should wrap the seat belt around your neck, and the driver should slam on the brakes), party beats (Fancy – Iggy), Call Me Maybe, and a healthy number of safety songs (basically any contemporary alternative rock). But what if nobody is feeling it? What if nobody knew the word to your favorite dubstep song (WWWWuuubbbBBBBbwuuubBBBBwubwubwubwubWUUUUUUbbbbbBBBBB). Maybe it’s time to ditch this playlist. What do you do now?

Borrow someone else’s ipod/phone/mp3 player/walkman/record player/entire band. Everybody has got what amounts to a “favorites” playlist. Play songs you know off of there. This way, you know at least you and one other person will like it. Chances are, if two people really like a song, the others’ ears won’t be bleeding at least.

Then there is the fool-proof, never letcha down, you’re going to be this road trip’s hero, 90s playlist. Everybody should have one. These songs are tried and tested and have withstood years of wave after relentless wave of new pop songs that try to usurp the special place in one’s heart for which each person reserves for the love, the life, the joy that is 90s music. With the 90s, you don’t have to hover your thumb over the skip button or worry about what song is coming up next, because you know it will be perfect. Just sit back and enjoy the ride…

No! Bad! You are still riding shotgun! CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

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