Carpooling to and from work is good for your gas budget. It’s good for your car. It’s good for the planet. And by facilitating socialization, it can also be, according to some experts, good for your mental health.

There is one thing that it is not:

As easy as it looks.

A carpool isn’t just four co-workers in the same car. It’s individuals with entrenched morning and evening routines suddenly at the mercy of a group. Idiosyncratic personalities crammed into a confined space for long stretches. Forced interaction during times when people are often at their least sociable (first thing in the morning) and most stressed (immediately after work).

Skyrocketing gas prices have pushed the potential benefits ahead of the drawbacks for many drivers. But communal commuting requires attention to detail and respect for carpool etiquette. So before jumping into the pool, consider these road-tested ride rules.

– Cash or barter? Decide up front if you’ll have one driver who is reimbursed by the riders for gas and mileage, or if you’ll share costs by rotating drivers. If it is the former, establish a firm payment schedule and stick to it. Your driver shouldn’t have to be a bill collector.

– Contact your insurance company. General liability protection usually covers passengers. But check the exceptions/exclusions provisions of your policy to be sure that carpools aren’t excluded. And if you’re taking money to give rides, you might be considered a shuttle service and subject to insurance at a higher rate. Call your agent to make sure. If the premium rises, spread the cost equally among riders.

– Don’t commit it to memory. If you are alternating the driving duties, put one person in charge of the schedule to make sure everyone shares equally. Decide among yourselves if you want to alternate on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

– Smoking or nonsmoking? That’s easy: Unless everybody lights up, nobody lights up.

– It’s a car, not a cafeteria. Bottled drinks with caps or coffee in a mug with a secure lid is OK. But eat breakfast before you leave the house.

– Not everybody is a Howard Stern fan. So make sure your radio is tuned to a station everyone can stand, or turn it off altogether.

– Conversation is optional. It’ll be a little awkward at first. Everyone will feel obligated to chat with everyone else. But it’s important over time to allow members to settle into their own driving-time routine, whether that involves reading a book or newspaper, working on a laptop computer, sitting quietly or even catching a few extra Zzzzzs. Conversation is cool, too – building friendships is one of the best parts about carpools – but don’t assume that everyone in the car wants to be in on it, and don’t take it personally if one of you tunes out the others.

– On time or die! Nothing kills a carpool quicker than tardiness. Whether driving or riding, make it your business to be on time to the designated pick-up spot.

– Stuff happens. Even the best-intentioned, most reliable among you will be late sometime. So program your fellow riders’ numbers into your cell phone and let them know when you’re delayed. Decide in advance what the standard maximum wait time will be – five minutes is the norm – and be prepared to drive yourself to work if the delay goes longer than that.

– Have a Plan B. If you have one driver, designate a backup for when that person falls sick, goes on vacation or puts the car in the shop. A carpool without at least two designated drivers will never last.

– Use common seating sense. Big and tall up front makes it more comfortable for everybody.

– Now is a good time to vacuum out that back seat. Yes, on some level, it’s just a business co-op. But they are guests in your car. Treat them accordingly. If you’re driving, clean up.

– To work and back. Period. No, it’s not OK if you take a little detour to pick up your dry cleaning. Your time is no more valuable than anyone else’s in the car. Do errands on your own time.

– Drive like your maw-maw. It’s one thing to push the speed limit and weave in and out of traffic when you’re flying solo. Unless you’re carpooling with three pregnant women in labor, slow down and proceed with even more caution than usual.

– Save the cologne and perfume for Saturday. It’s a job, not a date. Keep the air fresh for your fellow riders.

– Honk if you’re an insensitive jerk! Otherwise, use the cell phone and call to let your pick-up know you’re in the driveway. That way, you don’t disturb the whole neighborhood.

– Cell phone courtesy counts. Place calls from a full car only if they absolutely cannot wait. Text rather than call if possible. When taking calls, inform the caller that you’re in a carpool and would prefer to call back. And keep all calls as brief as possible. There’s nothing worse than being held hostage by somebody else’s long cell phone conversation.

– Observe the Golden Carpool Rule. Be flexible. There will be inconveniences. You’ll leave earlier than you want on some days. You’ll come home later than you want on others. And you’ll have to include others in plans and decisions you once made for yourself. But in the process, you’ll save a bucketful of money, extend the life of your vehicle, strengthen friendships and leave the air a little cleaner for your kids. All in all, not a bad trade.

Web sites providing carpooling tips for this story: www.icarpool.com, www.ridenow.org, www.carpool.ca, www.commuterpage.com, www.marc.org/rideshare/ and www.commutesolutions.com.


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