Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Backseat Drivers and Tort Law - the Annoying History and Etymology of "Backseat Driver"

A “backseat driver” has been a common, yet persistent, minor annoyance since at least 1915:

All the passengers wear their goggles and dusters and veils and most of them have a tough time of it besides, because they are what is known as backseat drivers.  Perhaps the reader would like to get a definition of a backseat driver.

The sex is generally feminine, and the inspiration is a combination of fear and hope.  The backseat driver takes it upon herself to do all the duties of a chauffeur except, of course, run the car, which is a minor matter.

She endeavors to push her French heels through the floor every time she thinks the car should be stopped in the imaginary motion of applying the brakes.  

“Ingenious Devices Joy Riders of To-Day Display,” The Sun (New York), July 25, 1915, Section V, page 7.

At a time when cars were frequently open-topped and the turn signals and braking signals were made by hand, backseat drivers did not annoy only people in their car; they could annoy other traffic as well: 

But the most confusing habit of those chronically addicted to backseat driving is signaling with the hands as if to stop or turn a corner or change the course in any direction.

The greatest trouble is that there are usually two or three backseat drivers per car.  Approaching from the rear one of these cars loaded with the average family of backseat drivers is as confusing as trying to select the prettiest girl in the Ziegfeld Follies.  The occupants of the back seat have the indecision of a chameleon placed on plaid and hands usually stick out in every direction, indicating it may change its mind and course and even back up at any minute.  Judging by the semaphores in the back seat the automobile is as uncertain in its intentions as the millionaire’s daughter who is trying to make up her mind whether to elope with the chauffeur or a social gangster.

There is another strange phenomenon about the possessors of these ladies’ and misses’ styles in automobiles.  The new owner believes his car is faster than any other on the road and always chooses the middle of the road as the proper place to drive.  If you desire to pass him it is necessary to take to the gutter and to run the risks of the waving and pointing hands of the backseat drivers.  It is frequently difficult to discriminate between conversational gestures and road directions.

“Ingenious Devices Joy Riders of To-Day Display,” The Sun (New York), July 25, 1915, Section V, page 7.

“Backseat drivers” by some name or another had probably been a minor annoyance since the invention of the automobile, which is generally credited to Karl Benz in 1886; or at least since the invention of the backseat sometime shortly thereafter.  The excerpt above from 1915, however, is the earliest, unambiguous example of the expression that I could find.[i] 

The term “backseat driver” may also have existed as early 1913, although it is unclear whetherthe article refers to “backseat drivers,” to people who literally drove from the backseat, or to backseat passengers on motorcycles.  The article discusses the advantages of then-new, so-called “cyclecars” – four-wheeled vehicles built along the lines of a motorcycle, with a chain- or belt-drive. 

In the spirit of the real definition of the word a cyclecar is a four-wheeled car built on motorcycle lines . . . .  At first it will be a vehicle to which the motorcycle and back-seat driver can graduate, until the public realizes the clean and cheap possibilities of the vehicle.

Motor Age (Chicago), Volume 23, Number 19, May 8, 1913, page 12.

A number of cyclecars were two-seaters, much like a bi-planes, in which two people sit one-behind the other; in some versions, the steering wheel is in the back seat.  Is that the sort of backseat driver referred to?  As I read it, it could go any one of three different ways.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), January 11, 1914, page 5.

Backseat drivers may have been a nuisance in 1915, but things would change.  In 1921, developments in the evolving law of automobiles encouraged passengers to become backseat drivers – or suffer the consequences:

Automobiles – Contributory Negligence of the Guest in Failing to Warn the Driver of Impending Danger. 

– The plaintiff was riding as a guest in the defendant’s automobile.  The windshield of the car was frosted so that neither was able to see that a crossing was blocked by a standing train until too late to avoid collision.  The plaintiff had warned the defendant of the excessive speed at which he was driving, but testified that he did not know whether or not the defendant had heard his protest.  The plaintiff knew the position of the railroad crossing, but did not remonstrate with the defendant in regard to the manner in which he was approaching it.  Held, that the plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law.  Failure on the part of the guest to see that the driver is keeping a proper lookout or to protest the negligent manner in which the car is being driven will bar a recovery from the driver in case of injury.  Howe v. Corey (Wis., 1920), 179 N. W. 791.

 . . . . [This ruling], in effect, places a burden upon the guest of electing between becoming a “back seat driver” or his own insurer against the perils encountered during the drive.

“Recent Important Decisions,” Michigan Law Review, Volume 19, Number 4, February 1921, page 433.

So remember, the next time you get annoyed by someone’s backseat driving – perhaps they are just trying to help.

Complaints about selecting parking spaces is another matter entirely; don't get me started.

[i] Other sources cite an apparently misdated article from the Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, Maine).  See “Back-seat driver,” Phrases.org.uk and “Where does the phrase ‘Backseat Driver’ come from?” PastandPresent.com (both citing the Daily Kennebec Journal, May, 1914).  I believe the reference to be misdated because Lefty Gomez was not born until 1908; he played for the New York Yankees during the 1930s.

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