The Hierarchy of Riding Shotgun

Tim Cotton

Tim Cotton | Dec 23, 2016

Decisions about who gets to ride “shotgun” on a car trip are not as clear as one might think. Anyone with a few miles under their seatbelts should understand that a myriad of factors determine who gets to ride in the front passenger seat. Everyone comes from a different place along with a different set of standards in how the seat is selected.

It is in no way as simple as calling out “shotgun”-- and it shouldn’t be.

Simpler times when merely having a shotgun was enough to ensure you the coveted front seat.

For most of my life, at least since my teen years, it is pretty clear to me how the position is determined. Factors are to include physical condition, physical build, age, relationship with the driver, number of people traveling, number of seats available, marital status with the operator, and the list goes on and on. The onset of motion sickness for a person who rides in back can override many other factors. Most of us do not carry barf bags. We really should.

I was an observer of the process recently as I was taking my twenty-year-old son to the cottage for a wood-splitting adventure. We still refer to it as an adventure, but he has not bought into it for a very long time. We stopped to pick up my longtime friend. We will call him Dave. Mainly because that is what his parents named him.

Those prone to motion sickness have a "Get Out of The Backseat Free" card. 

Dave is almost 40 years the senior to my son, but smaller in stature. I watched the two of them work it out between themselves. As in any negotiation the driver should remain more of a judge or observer unless one of the riders is the driver’s spouse. In that case, spouse always wins the shotgun position. If the spouse sees other issues that allow him/her to relegate themselves to the backseat (see myriad of factors in previous paragraph), the spouse can obviously give up the seat for good cause. Nothing says that the spouse cannot reclaim the seat at some point in the trip and all passengers should keep this in mind. Spousal override. It’s a thing.

I heard my son tell Dave that since he was a guest in the truck, he would ride in front. Dave counterclaimed that my son was three inches north of six feet and that he would be more comfortable riding in the front seat of the double cab pickup truck. My son (correctly) moved directly to the the seniority clause of the unwritten rules.  He said that since Dave was older, he was much more likely to be comfortable in the front seat. Dave replied that he did not care where he was riding and my son finished it off with the coup de grace. He simply said, “Then you will ride in front.” The decision was made.

You'll find the Seniority Clause in Volume 47, Chapter 9. (Tony Webster)

It was a matter of seniority, friendship, and the fact that my kid has learned over the years that those in positions of power should be shown respect. In this case, Dave is a master Honda service technician and has fixed our cars and motorcycles for years.

Dave has helped my son rebuild two Jeep Wranglers (a vehicle that Dave hates with a vengeance) and has been our on-call mechanic and dirt bike riding companion during my son’s entire life. Dave is kind, as shown by working on my son’s two Jeeps, which both had issues.

Jeeps are far outside his Japanese branded bailiwick. Dave owns the shotgun seat--end of discussion. Maybe we should change the name to “shogun seat” when Dave travels with us.

Another rule of the shotgun code: Never claim shotgun over your trusted mechanic, especially if you drive a junker!

In my teen years, calling out “shotgun” in order to ride in the front passenger seat was completely acceptable. It was a point that was almost never argued among close friends and if you were not a close friend, you already knew better than calling out the word, shotgun.

The rules of engagement are learned through watching older siblings taking control during the sprints to the front seat. Their calls of “front seat” meant the same thing.

As the lone male in my cast of siblings, I had to contend with two older sisters. One to block and one to lay down some smack.The oldest would give verbal clues about how it was going to work. These less than subtle hints would be backed up with low levels of violence if, perchance, I were to make it to the seat before she did. She had ulterior motives in her quest for the front seat of the 1965 Biscayne. She wanted control of both the front seat and the radio knobs. She was a totalitarian Dick Clark.

We bet Dick Clark never had to fight for shotgun!

The czar of the shotgun seat would use my second oldest sister as the strong-arm. If the eldest was not available to travel, it was obvious who would be in front. At that time of my life I had no desire to control the radio.

While growing up, both of my parents normally accompanied us in the car. In that case, the war cry in the Cotton’s driveway was, “I got a window.” Yes, we used that terminology and while the statement is grammatically incorrect, it did not matter. The message was clear; I would be stuck the middle of the backseat. Even if I called out the words, I still had to contend with the stratum of my position in the household.

I might try to open the door in a chivalrous move to indicate that one of the sisters should get in first. Violence would ensue and I would be manhandled or in this case, woman-handled and forced into the car in a manner similar to the secret service when they are attempting to protect a candidate or dignitary. It happened fast and before you knew it I no longer had a window. I stopped calling out the phrase after a time. Why waste the energy?

We can tell this photo is staged because the middle child is not crying. 

In the end, the hierarchy of calling shotgun is learned through a series of lessons. You might gain control of the shotgun seat by birthright, by force, or by manipulation. Calling shotgun is not always the deciding factor on where you end up riding in a vehicle.

In the world of law enforcement, much is decided by the seniority of an officer in relation to your partner for the shift. If the senior officer chooses the passenger seat, the junior officer is the driver. Case closed.

If the senior officer makes the decision to drive, there are no questions asked. This is how it works. When the two officers are close friends, sometimes there is a system in which they swap off driver and passenger roles.

As you can imagine, yelling the word shotgun when on duty can cause some concern among the officers in the immediate vicinity. We don’t do that. And since we don’t ride three or four to a car, we always have a window. At this point in my life, I am pretty happy with that.


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