Most of us understand the importance of good manners in everyday life, though many leave good car etiquette at the door. 

WHY DO SO many of us seem to forget how to behave when we step into an enclosed space like a motor vehicle? There’s has been plenty written about people behaving badly on aeroplanes, but what about in cars? What about in-car etiquette?

I wonder whether – when we’re learning all the important stuff about driving, safety, and navigation – we shouldn’t be taking a lesson in motor vehicle manners as well. People who are more courteous inside the car might be better behaved on the outside as well, no?

Until such time comes, we’ve put together a basic guide to in-car etiquette and being a more polite passenger (and we’ve also put together a guide on how to be a polite driver).

Do not touch the controls without permission.

This is probably the best known example of in-car etiquette, and the one on which most people agree. You just don’t touch another person’s stereo.

If a car is like a nightclub, then the driver is the DJ. You wouldn’t walk up to the decks in a club and start spinning your own tunes under the DJ’s nose. Or if you did, you’d be getting fairly well-acquainted with the bouncers.

The same rules apply in a car that’s not yours. Unless your driver has spoken those magic words, ‘feel free to change the music’, then you don’t touch.

I’d like to think there could be room for some exceptions here, based on the very poorest taste in music. But let’s face it, one driver’s Beethoven is another one’s Bieber, so we really can’t afford to make any allowances for personal preference.

Remember, fans of bad music are like the dead people in The Sixth Sense – they’re all around us, and they don’t know their taste in music is terrible.

The only controls you should feel comfortable adjusting are those that affect you alone – so your seat position, heated seat controls, and dual air conditioning, if available.

Mind your own business.

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who rifle through their friends’ bathroom cabinets when they’re not looking, and those who don’t.

It’s not really a socially acceptable thing to do (which is you do it in hiding, and why you’re mortified if you get caught).

The in-car equivalent is rifling through someone’s glovebox and door pockets.

Unless they ask you to go looking for something, it’s their private storage space. Keep your hands to yourself.

Don’t touch the glass.

Smudges are the bane of even the most easy-going car-owners life. Putting your greasy paws all over the glass is annoying and unnecessary.

When you open the door, use the door handles, and the door handles only.

Don’t press your finger against the glass to point things out.

Don’t use your hand to wipe away mist or condensation – if you must, ask the driver for permission and a cloth.

And for the love of all things sacred, don’t write your name or a stupid message in the foggy window.

Feet off the dash.

Everyone has their quirks. I have friends who are revolted by stray human hairs, and others who think grubby fingernails are the height of repulsion.

But there’s one thing we can all agree on. Feet are gross.

Okay, there might be a few weirdos on the internet who like feet a little too much. And that’s fine. If you’re ever in their car, they might not mind you putting your feet up on their dashboard.

But there’s a good chance everyone else will mind. If you’re not sure, try walking up to your colleague’s desk in the office, and resting your feet up next to their keyboard. See if they mind.

Seriously though, there are important safety considerations as well. For starters, if you’re in a prang and your front airbags go off, you could be smelling those (now broken) feet from the inside of your nose.

And in this beloved sunburned country of ours, anyone who has ever known the pain of sunburnt feet should never again need reminding why it’s a bad idea to rest them on the dash during a road trip.

Don’t be a tosser.

It pains me to have to point out that leaving rubbish in someone else’s car is unacceptably rude – but apparently it’s a common problem? Ugh.

Again, it’s worth making a comparison here. Would you leave rubbish in a friend’s lounge room? Actually, if you’re socially inept enough to leave rubbish in someone’s car, you probably would.

We spend a lot of time in our cars, as a driver or passenger. For many of us, our vehicles become a mobile office slash café slash wardrobe. And with all those duties comes a certain amount of debris.

But it’s fairly disrespectful to leave any of your own debris behind in your mate’s car.

Don’t assume everyone is happy to treat their car as a mobile restaurant. Check it’s okay before you bring food or drinks into the car, take care, and be prepared to clean up any spills or crumbs.

Then, try to remember that national parks tagline: take only photographs, leave only footprints. (Except brush the dirt off your shoes before getting in as well, so you don’t actually leave big dirty footprints either.)

If someone lends you their car or gives you a ride, you fill the tank. No shortcuts.

Many car owners will happily lend you their car, or give you a lift, and not ask for a thing in return. God bless those rare gems, and the unicorns they rode in on.

For the rest of us, the rule is if they help you out, you fill up their tank. This is especially important if you’ve actually borrowed the car, rather than just accepted a ride.

Do you reckon you only used about $5 worth of fuel? To begin with, you’re probably kidding yourself. And also, you do not want to be that guy who puts $5 worth of fuel into the car. Fill up the tank.

Do you think they only took you a short distance, and really, filling the tank will cost more than a taxi? Get a cab then. This time, fill up the tank.

Do you think it was only half full when you got it? Boohoo. Fill up the tank.

People get very funny about fuel prices. We’ll scrimp and scrounge for a supermarket docket that will save us approximately 40c at the bowser. So it’s just worth remembering that $50-$70 to fill up your friend’s tank might seem like a lot, but it’s actually not that much to pay for the generosity and convenience you’ve enjoyed.

And while you’re at it, a quick rinse at the car wash won’t kill you either…

OIder people in the front. Kids in the back.

There are few things that look more awkward than a car that has a child in the front seat and an adult in the back.

Any child under 12 should be in the back seat for safety reasons anyway. But regardless, car seating is based on hierarchy; and generally, the younger you are, the further back you should be sitting.

Note this rule applies to the cabin only – it doesn’t mean you can transport children in your trailer.

Of course, those further up the hierarchy get to choose – if they prefer to sit in the back, then so be it.

The other exception to this rule is teenagers, who may prefer to scowl at their parents from as great a distance as possible. Maybe you can put them in the trailer.

Zip it.

On a scale of Things That Are Annoying, backseats drivers are up there with the middle-of-the-night lone mosquito and incorrect use of the word ‘literally’.

The good news is, when you’re driving, you get to call the shots. You’re the boss. Hooray for democracy! At all other times, do not offer advice or instructions unless directly asked.

In my experience, the genetic shortcoming that results in backseat driving also seems to leave its sufferers unable to distinguish between constructive advice, and stating the blindingly obvious.

So they’ll say ‘you missed the turn’ as you sail well past the exit.

Or ‘don’t hit that car!’ – wow, what a great idea!

But why is backseat driving advice SO very annoying? We all learn ways to deal with irritation in daily life, so the disproportionate level of response might have to do with the fact that in a car, we can’t use all our usual coping mechanisms – like moving away or finding a distraction.

Like many bad habits, second-guessing the driver can be dangerous as well – research has previously found backseats drivers are more likely to cause an accident than prevent one.

(It’s not clear how many injuries are actually caused by the irritated driver, who might have just made it look like an accident.)

My car, my rules.

Remember when you were a misbehaving teenager and your mum or dad said that as long as you live under this roof you’ll obey my rules?

Leaving aside the fact that this statement probably prompted more of us to leave home at 16 than ever would have otherwise, the same rule applies to cars.

In matters of car etiquette (not safety or law), the car owner has the final say. And just like at your parents’ house, if you don’t like it, you can leave.

Just make sure you don’t slam the door on your way out.

Over to you – what are your best tips for in-car etiquette? And any good stories of passengers behaving badly? Let us know in the comments below or get involved on our Facebook page.


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About Author

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley is an experienced freelance writer whose natural curiosity means she knows enough about cars to hold a decent conversation. While happily admitting her Toyota 86 makes promises her street driving can’t quite keep, she’s relishing the opportunity to review some of Australia’s most interesting new vehicles from an ‘everyperson’ perspective. She’s on a mission to understand and explain how all those features and gadgets actually impact upon your driving experience.


  1. I don’t have my phone connected via handsfree, therefore answering it is my passenger’s job…..if I’m the passenger I’ll tell you to give it to me so I can answer it.

    On handsfree, tell the caller they are on speaker and someone is next to you (name where appropriate)….a former colleague once had the misfortune of the caller having a whinge about his front seat passenger while taking a handsfree call in the car….

    Once or twice have had to grab the steering wheel to prevent an accident due to the driver not paying attention to the road….

    1. I’ll be doing a future article on good etiquette for drivers, and I’ll be adding ‘let callers know they’re on speaker and you’re not alone’ to the list!

      Gee, grabbing the steering wheel is a tough one … it sound like the sort of thing I’d advise against. I guess you just have to be absolutely sure that the looming disaster is so certain that it’s the only safe option, and your last resort …

      1. Cheers Jane…

        Completely agree on grabbing the steering wheel, or any other essential controls for that matter…..

        The last time I did it we were on a narrow dirt track with a decent drop off on the left….the driver looked down to change the music on his phone and we started drifting towards it to the point I thought the car would go over the edge if I did nothing, so I quickly grabbed the wheel to straighten it….it was more instinctive than conscious as it was only a couple of secs between him looking down and me grabbing the wheel….and yes, I gave the driver a serve for it….

  2. Excellent article! I like the bits about hands off everything. Of course, some of my mates used to do all the bad things and then freak when I returned the favour in their cars.
    Back seat drivers get told to shut up or walk. If I’m in their car, I’ll stop and get out and walk – and chuck their keys into a paddock.

  3. My pet hate is drivers who when they are talking to me want to look at me whilst doing so.I would love to say ,”Please look at the road,not me”

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