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Carpool etiquette

Published on: December 01, 2009

It’s a way of life for many families: Carpooling is good for the environment, good for congestion, good for families’ schedules and pocketbooks. But how do you organize a carpool that runs like the well-oiled machine you’re driving?
First, don’t jump into the pool with a family that doesn’t share your family’s values and goals about safety and scheduling. “Part of having a carpool go well means respecting each other’s time,” says Jenny Miller, a carpooling mom from Redmond with two children, ages 10 and 11. “There are times when you have to ask another parent if you can swap carpool days and change things around, and it’s nice when they’re understanding and the favor is returned.”

Keep it clear

Good communication between the drivers is essential for making sure all the kids get to where they need to be. Who will stay late for band practice? Who’s going across town for the soccer game? And who’s getting dropped off at ballet class? To keep it all organized, it’s a good idea to set up an email list or phone tree so that carpool drivers can quickly network about last-minute changes such as illness, school closings or early dismissal.

Laurie Rockenbeck, the mother of two children attending Three Cedars School in Bellevue, could be called an uber-pooler. She says organization is the key to having a successful carpool. “Our carpool is set up to be a communal helping gesture more than a tit-for-tat obligation. We have six different families in our carpool, with a total of 10 children. No one family carpools all the children at one time. I bring home three children whose parents never have my children in their carpool. But on other days, another mom brings home my children even though I don’t ever have hers in my car, and the carpool schedule changes often.” Email helps her keep it all straight.

Safety first

Being responsible for transporting children in a carpool requires an emphasis on safety. The Evergreen Safety Council, a nonprofit organization in Seattle, compiles tips for public safety on the highway. Among those tips: Make sure everyone in the carpool wears a seatbelt, keep kids younger than 12 in the back seat, stay under the speed limit and stay off the phone (even the hands-free kind). Carry a list of the carpool group’s phone numbers in case of emergency, and always know who’s driving.

To simplify accountability, in some carpools, only parents drive but in others, grandparents, nannies or housekeepers may help out, particularly for afternoon pickups when parents may be at work. Know the make and model of all the cars in your carpool, and confirm that all the carpool drivers are insured. Make sure you have sufficient liability coverage on your own car in case of an accident. Depending on how many children ride in your carpool, you may need to add an umbrella policy.

The biggest tip from the Evergreen Safety Council: Slow down! “Give yourself extra time by leaving early. Do not rush while driving,” reads the council’s guide. “Organize yourself to leave early and give some extra time. In particular, don’t rush when carpooling children to and from school. You may transmit your urgency to them, causing them to disregard traffic safety and run headlong across a street.”

Avoiding trouble

Besides having clear rules about safety, Rockenbeck recommends establishing clear carpool passenger rules as well. Let the kids know whether messy snacks or open drinking cups are allowed in your car, or what type of music, if any, can be on. “Personally, I don’t allow food or music in the car,” she says. “I just find that the level of noise in the car goes way down if I keep the radio off.” It’s also a good idea to be up front regarding trash talk about classmates or teachers, as well as cell phone use.

“I encourage talk, rather than music, in the car, but if ever there is inappropriate or mean talk, I would tell the kids it’s not OK,” says Miller. It’s also good to speak up to other parents. If a sticky situation does come up with another carpool driver, address it quickly.

Frustration can build when one parent feels they are doing more than their share of the driving in a carpool. “If something doesn’t feel right, talk to the other parent about it. Don’t let things linger,” Rockenbeck warns. “Before you commit to doing something, ask yourself if it’s really going to work for you or not. Don’t overcommit.”

Nothing frays good carpool relations more than drivers or kids who are chronically late. Have your kids ready to go, and ask them to watch out the window for the car. “It’s just a courtesy to the driver,” Rockenbeck says. “If everyone is respectful of the morning schedule, we’ll all get to school on time.”

Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance writer, mother and stepmother.

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