Riding shotgun is a great honor. But it is an honor which you must earn. How, you ask? Well, traditionally, all you have to do is be the first to say the word “shotgun.” Simple, right? Not so fast cowboy (or cowgirl, or cowperson). The rules for riding shotgun are actually quite detailed and, dare we say, complex. And if you’ve ever competed in this game of passenger-side domination, you know disputes are commonplace. We’re in the education business here, which means it’s our mission to keep you informed. In this case, we want to be sure that you have all the information you need to emerge victorious in any such dispute. Commit these official Rules of Order for Riding Shotgun to your memory, and revel in smug glory over your front-seat status.
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Otherwise, read on, and arm yourself for the next race to shotgun…
What is Riding Shotgun?
In the simplest terms, the game of shotgun is a competition for the right to ride in the front seat of the car and all the seniority that this implies because, let’s face it, nobody likes being in the back seat, relegated from the adult conversation, reduced to asking others to turn down the heat, trapped inside by child safety locks.
But shotgun is about so much more than just avoiding the indignity of the back seat. It’s about discipline, intuition, punctuality, and, in some cases, brute force. Most importantly, shotgun is the perfect middle ground between hierarchy and democracy, between authority and autonomy, between might and right. Our agreement to participate in and adhere to the terms of shotgun is tantamount to our ability to live peaceably in a structured society governed by rational behavior.
Or to quote The Big Lebowski, “This isn’t ‘Nam man! There are rules!”
You can’t just go around saying shotgun all willy nilly and expect a permanent seat at the front of every vehicle in the world. Nor can you assume that, because you have earned shotgun, you can’t lose it just as quickly. Claiming shotgun is about precision timing and heads-up play. Keeping shotgun is about responsibility and support. Both require an awed deference to the Riding Shotgun Rules of Order.
Before outlining these rules though…
A Brief History of Riding Shotgun
The term “riding shotgun” actually traces its origins to America’s Western frontier, where 19th century stagecoach messengers wishing to protect themselves against roving bandits would travel with armed security. The “shotgun messenger” became a fixture of the Old West but most likely entered popular lexicon through its depiction in later television shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke.
In the late 1950s, the phrase “riding shotgun” or “sitting shotgun” began to penetrate the popular lexicon, particularly by way of suburban youth culture. Within a decade, shotgun had emerged as a binding but unwritten social contract.
Recent years have seen myriad attempts at formalizing the written rules of shotgun. This document gathers the fruits of these various efforts to create an encompassing rulebook by which all matters relating to and extending from the invocation, enforcement, or violation of shotgun may be mediated, arbitrated, or, in some disturbing cases, consummated.
1. Calling Shotgun
The first and most important rule of shotgun is that you must call it out loud. The first person to utter the phrase “shotgun” earns the right to sit in the front passenger-side seat of the automobile, truck, tractor, or zamboni. In the case of a World War II-issue combination motorcycle, shotgun affords the winner a coveted seat in the sidecar.
2. Timing It Right
You may only call shotgun when the driver is in earshot. Furthermore, both you and the driver must have already exited the establishment from which you are departing. If said establishment lacks walls, windows, roof, and a door (also commonly referred to as “outside”), both driver and would-be front seat passenger must be within eyeshot of the vehicle. And a word of advice: if you plan to call shotgun, do it with a little volume. Say it like you mean it and don’t be afraid to gloat a little bit. Many a well-timed shotgun call has been overturned by the limitations of human hearing. If the driver doesn’t hear you, you deserve to be in the back seat and that’s exactly where you’ll end up.
3. Settling a Tie
A tie occurs when two or more contenders utter “shotgun” simultaneously. In most jurisdictions, either of the contenders may impose a binding mandate of silence on his or her counterpart by declaring “jinx.” The jinxing party and any other parties present may consequently enforce this mandate upon the jinxed party by penalty of “Charlie Horse.” At this juncture, though you have succeeded in silencing and possibly hitting your opponent, you have not yet earned occupation of the front seat. This must be determined by a footrace. The first of the competitors to make contact with the passenger-side door handle wins the draw, and thus, becomes the bearer of frontsies. Note that winning shotgun does not mitigate the terms of “jinx” and that even from the front seat, the jinxed party is bound to silence until one of the car’s occupants states said party’s first and last name out loud.
4. Default Riders
Now before you get all up in a huff about your right to shotgun, remember that there are a few proprietary considerations that override even the most timely shotgun call. When riding with a romantically entwined couple where one party is the driver, the significant other has a default claim to shotgun. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t mess with this one. Suck it up, buttercup. Get in the back.
5. Driver Fail
In the unlikely event that a driver is unable to perform his or her chauffeuring duties, whether because of illness, inebriation, or sudden-onset-adult-narcolepsy, he or she will automatically be rewarded shotgun. In an ideal world, the holder of shotgun would be prepared to step into the lurch and take the wheel but of course, consideration must be given to those who lack the legal documentation to drive, those who lack the coordination to drive stick shift (where the occasion calls for this skill), and those whose driving is so terrible that it frightens passengers and endangers motorists, pedestrians, and small woodland creatures. In this case, stand-in driving duties will be vested in the most readily capable passenger.
6. Backseat Riders
Once shotgun has been officially delegated — a process which by its very nature should take only a split second — it falls on the vehicle’s remaining passengers to stake their claim on a prime backseat spot. A call of “No b!#*h” protects the claimant from relegation to the middle or “b!#*h seat.” This rule derives from the fact that sitting in the middle back seat super sucks. In the event that one is riding with an exceptionally large person who feels that he or she must employ the full reclining extension of either the driver- or passenger-side front seat, one would be within one’s full legal right to stake a claim to the roomier of the two back window seats.
7. The Balk
You’ve successfully called and won shotgun so you’re totally home-free, right? Not so fast. You aren’t in the seat just yet. There’s a moment when everything hangs in the balance, that blink-of-an-eye between the time the driver hits the unlock button and the time the mechanism on your side clicks open. You know exactly what happens if you jerk the handle early. Your door is stuck in that limbo between locked and unlocked, closed and open. You’ll sheepishly look at the driver and ask for a reprieve. But dude, that’s really annoying. Now you have to re-close the door with a hip-check, then the driver has to click lock then unlock again. That’s seven seconds that none of us will ever get back. And for that, my friend, you no longer get to ride shotgun. Tough break but it’s the only way you’ll learn.
8. Fight Club
In a perfect universe, every claim to shotgun would be backed by good, solid, court-admissible evidence. But the universe is by no means perfect. People disagree and sometimes strenuously at that. As history has shown, all individuals will tend to view events through their own unique lens. Where shotgun is concerned, this often leads to confrontations, raised voices, and cartoonish violence. In these instances, a driver who wishes not be to be troubled with the responsibility of mediating an outcome can declare “survival of the fittest.” Once this state of relative anarchy is declared, those who wish to defend the claim for shotgun may use any physical means necessary to be the first with a butt in the seat. Once the butt is down, the seat is spoken for. At this juncture, any attempt to oust this butt from its resting place will be viewed as an act of unsanctioned hostility to be redressed in whatever disciplinary manner the driver sees fit. Suggested punishments in this instance include a swift flick to the forehead, a Wet Willie or, during flu season, its more-sanitary-but-still-unpleasant variation, the Dry William.
9. The Spider-Man Principle
Of the many life-lessons we can draw from the parable of Marvel’s Spider-Man, perhaps the most valuable is this: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This might well be the credo of the shotgun rider, for the one who lands this privileged position also lands a critical support role during the journey from Point A to Point B and all points beyond. Understand and accept that when you call shotgun, you have appointed yourself the Captain’s first mate (alternately referred to as “Tenille”). This means that you are beholden to any and all reasonable requests issued by the driver that are not explicitly stated hereafter but fall within the realm of effecting safe passage for all of the vehicle’s occupants.
10. Flight of the Navigator
When you claim shotgun, you are also making a pretty bold statement about your suitability for navigation. In the event that the directions are unknown to the driver, it becomes the responsibility of the shotgun rider to consult GPS or, if you happen to be driving in 1974, a roadmap. If you feel that you cannot perform these duties, you really have no business being in the front. If you happen to be a dolt when it comes to directions, save everybody a whole lot of time and a potential wrong turn into a scary neighborhood and just sit in the back.
11. One Man Band
Remember, first and foremost, that control of the music is deferred to the driver. Unless you have explicit permission or a precedent within the given relationship, keep your hands off the dial. If the driver wants to spend a four hour stretch listening to solo Art Garfunkel, that is his or her right. You may want to re-examine your relationship, but now is neither the time nor the place. In a healthy and functional relationship, there’s a good chance the driver will defer DJ’ing responsibilities to shotgun. In this event, you have the responsibility to ensure enjoyment and protect the driver and other passenger from irritations like radio commercials, transitional silence, or Rush. In the event that you fail egregiously in your duties by misreading the vibe in the car, oafishly skipping a song during its emotional high point, or conversely, failing to change the station from a Nickelback song in anything more than 4 seconds, you will lose your shotgun duties and be remanded to the back seat. In the event that the Nickelback song originated on your iPod, you may in fact be asked to exit the vehicle altogether. See Rule #23 for reference on determining a new shotgun rider.
12. Mobile Telephony
Back in the day, riding shotgun meant that you actually brandished a shotgun. Today, it’s the driver’s smart phone that you must brandish. Provided you value your safety, you can’t have the driver texting, googling, or tweeting behind the wheel. At the risk of sounding like your dad, it isn’t smart, it isn’t safe, and you’re stupid if you do it, so don’t. This, of course, means that all smart phone responsibilities fall upon the shotgun rider including the transmission of text messages, phone number reconnaissance, and debate mediation by way of Wikipedia. This rule states that you are bound to do whatever the driver tells you with said smart phone short of taking incriminating selfies, which you can do but that’s your call. Hey, I’m not actually your dad.
13. Food Services
Yup, this one can be a little degrading but you are in charge of opening all water bottles, unwrapping all candy bars, and unsheathing all beef jerkies. Your responsibilities will vary here, depending upon the driver’s innate abilities and their relative squeamishness about having others handle their food. Some drivers could independently navigate the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour while dressing a shawarma. Others couldn’t chew gum in a rural parking lot without dinging a bale of hay. Act accordingly. Especially on a long road trip, the driver’s ability to focus and make good time will depend on regular nourishment. If this means hand-feeding your driver one Dorito at a time, so be it.
14. The Gatekeeper and Keymaster
The shotgun rider is responsible for jumping to action any time a gate must be opened, a garage code must be punched in, or three riddles must be answered correctly at the behest of a magical troll. The same also applies to the fast removal of branches, trash cans, or errant lawn gnomes that might block the vehicle’s safe passage. The passenger will never lose his or her claim to shotgun for exiting the car to attend to these responsibilities.
15. Parallel Parking
As with Rule #13, your responsibilities here will vary depending upon both the driver’s abilities and environmental conditions. In events where these factors prompt the need for assistance, it falls upon the shotgunner to roll down a window, exit the car, and assist the driver as he or she attempts to wedge a minivan into a space the size of a shoebox. This means standing curbside and saying “You’re good. You’re good. You’re good. Stop!” and repeating the action as many times as the situation dictates. Be careful here. If you let the driver nudge another car on either side, you’ve officially blown it. The whole point of you even getting out of the car was to prevent this very thing from happening. Sorry McGoo, but you won’t be sitting shotgun on the ride home.
16. Gas It Up
Shotgun also makes you the attendant-on-duty when the vehicle pulls up to a service station. This one is pretty self-explanatory though fiduciary responsibility is a matter subject to situational variations. On long trips, all riders are expected to contribute to the cost of fuel. In the case of shorter runs to the liquor store, the convenience mart, or the ice cream parlor, the cost typically falls on the driver. In any event, the shotgunner is not inherently responsible for paying at the pump. Your responsibility at the gas station is a physical one, except in New Jersey where self-serve doesn’t exist and attendants give you the stink-eye for even touching the pump. Again, it is noteworthy here that the passenger will never lose his or her claim to shotgun for exiting the car to attend to these responsibilities.
17. Remain Conscious
Underlying each and every one of the above-noted responsibilities is this very sacred commandment: thou shalt not sleep on the job. A sleeping shotgunner is basically worthless. In addition to being rendered incapable of meeting any of the obligations outlined above, the snoozer is failing in the most basic and critical of duties, which is ensuring that the driver is also awake. On longer road trips, the ability to fulfill this role becomes a matter of great importance. If you fall asleep in the front seat, it goes without saying that you’ll be pitched into the back seat at the nearest pull-off. But you should also be warned that other passengers have the right — some might even say the responsibility — to draw on your face with any available non-toxic, non-permanent writing utensils. See Rule #23 for reference on determining a new shotgun rider.
As the vehicle’s second-in-command, you are the first line of defense against the local constabulary. Whether your driver enjoys speeding, switching lanes without a signal, or placing high stakes bets on illegal underground mixed martial arts competitions, it falls upon you to ensure that these questionable activities may be conducted without interference by local law enforcement. Indeed, your shotgun designation makes you the top accomplice to any and all behavior which might result in a road-side stop. Thus, the shotgun rider must keep his or her eyes cast on the road and mirrors at all times. It is your vigilance that could be the difference between a smooth ride and an unwanted brush with the fuzz.
19. Silence Your Inner-Critic
So your buddy drives the car like it’s an old lady nursing a hip replacement. So there are mothers with strollers passing you on the sidewalk. So you’re moving so slowly that you can clearly hear every expletive hurled at your car from the frustrated motorists behind you. As the shotgun rider, there’s nothing you can do about it. So long as the driver is neither endangering you nor other motorists, you have to bite your tongue. Shotgun does not give you the right to tell the driver how to drive, even if he or she kind of stinks at it. Of course, if your driver starts mowing down mailboxes and meter maids, you can intervene. But if the offense is driving too slow, missing turns, or pump-accelerating in a way that makes everybody nauseous, you sort of have to hope that somebody in the back complains. They already have nothing to lose.
20. Just Be Cool
This is perhaps the rule most vulnerable to individual interpretation. At its core, the provision states that the shotgun rider must make all efforts to be cool. Spending significant portions of the ride yammering on your cell phone is not cool. Constantly and indiscriminately fiddling with the air conditioner, defogger, and windows to the discomfort of all other passengers is not cool. Playing the Spice Girls and singing along at the top of your lungs like it’s supposed to be funny is not cool. As the beholder of shotgun, you are the liaison between driver and backseat passengers, the tissue that binds the car together, the Ringo to the rest of the Beatles. Say what you want about Ringo but the dude is cool. And the other Beatles liked hanging out with him. Be like Ringo. Be cool and the whole car will be cool with you. Act like a tool and you’ll be in the back seat faster than you can say “Pete Best.”
21. End of the Line
Well, it was a sweet ride but it had to end some time. Once the car is parked, the key removed from the ignition, and all occupants exited, your glorious reign is over. It doesn’t matter if you all walk inside a restaurant, find out that it has a 60 minute wait, say “nuts to that, let’s just go to Applebees” and walk out in the space of 30 seconds. The race for shotgun starts all over again. You can always call it again if you’re fast enough but, honestly, that’s kind of a jerk move.
There is one way and one way only to retain your right to shotgun even after standing up and exiting the car for reasons other than the attendance of your shotgun duties. Here, the rules of shotgun defer to the separate but entwining doctrine held by the Ancient Order of Fives. This dictates that the holder of any seat, be it couch, stool, or chaise lounge, may depart to grab a drink, place a wager, or answer to nature’s call, and return within the space of five minutes to reclaim his or her chosen throne. The individual in question need only call “fives” before departing. These parameters extend to the shotgun passenger, who upon exiting the car briefly for any number of matters that might take roughly five minutes, may declare “fives” and preserve frontsies. A failure to declare “fives” in this circumstance means that all bets are off and that anybody may claim the front seat by force. Fair warning here that this is not the most sportsmanlike of conduct, but there’s no rule that says you can’t.
23. Getting Promoted
Once a shotgun rider has run afoul of his or her duties, or has simply run afoul of the driver’s good graces, each backseat rider has a fair claim to the shotgun position. When the driver has explicitly stated the decision to eject the original shotgun rider in a manner consistent with the rules stated here throughout, any of the backseat riders may exclaim “dibs,” which, in accordance with the Natural Laws of Dibs operating in perpetuity throughout the known universe, will earn said exclaimer passage to the front seat.
24. The Driver’s Code of Conduct
It’s not all dictated-texting and butlered Doritos for the driver. In fact, the driver holds the very serious responsibility of umpiring any and all matters relating to the call, assumption, retention, and performance of shotgun. Moreover, the driver is the mediator in disputed matters. It is incumbent upon the driver to deliver the final judgement in shotgun disputes so long as said judgement conforms to all terms stated here within. In the event that the driver does not wish to perform these duties, he or she may refer to the “survival of the fittest” provision outlined in Rule #8 above. Even in these instances, however, the driver must serve as the enforcer of the broader shotgun rulebook through the ensuing ride and beyond, lest he or she risk surrendering the authority and credibility inherently vested in the driver.
25. Shotgun Override
In spite of the driver’s role as the Supreme Car Justice in all disputes, he or she does not possess the right of “shotgun override.” Such as it is stated, this provision dictates that nobody, not even the driver, can reverse the outcome of a shotgun event in conflict with the rules and provisions stated here. One cannot, without just cause, be denied shotgun nor removed from shotgun upon firstly, audibly, and within the scope of the parameters stated here, calling and earning the seat. It is advised, thusly, that all drivers keep a copy of this document in a glove box or center console for consultation in the event of a dispute.
26. Irreconcilable Differences
Any disputes which truly do defy mediation based on the rules stated here can only be judiciously settled by an appearance before the World Council on the Administration of Shotgun Justice (WCASJ) or an independent commission appointed by said Council. Given that no such Council exists, the wait-time for due process is quite extraordinary and generally leads to universal out-of-court settlement or, in the case of instances where agreement cannot be reached, the total suspension of the intended vehicular journey.
Once again, if you like following, enforcing, or debating rules so much that you plan to make a career out of it, check out these awesome legal degrees: