Yale Psychologist Offers Fun and Safety Tips for Carpool Parents

New Haven, CT The average carpool parent is 40 years old and shuttles three children. The most frequent destination is school, followed by sports, music lessons and scouts, in that order. Carpool parents also do a lot of waiting, spending an average of seven hours a week in the car yet driving only 15 miles.

“Plan some games to keep active children entertained, just as you would for a cross-country trip,” says Yale psychologist Dorothy Singer, who recently developed tips to make carpooling safer and more enjoyable at the request of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. “Keep in mind you may be spending as much time together in the car each week as it takes to drive from Boston to Philadelphia, or from Denver to Santa Fe.”

Nissan’s random survey last spring of 300 parents and 300 children revealed that convenience was the chief motivator for parents to carpool; for children, it was seeing their friends. Saving money on gas was another benefit cited frequently by parents.

Safety ranked as the highest priority, even among children. So, before trying to cram an entire scout pack into your car, make sure you have no more children than seat belts, Dr. Singer told parents during a recent news media tour sponsored by Nissan, which plans to publish her tips next March in a brochure. See that younger children are in age-appropriate car seats or booster chairs, even for the shortest trips, she said. All children younger than age 12 should ride in the back seat of cars equipped with air bags.

“Ask children to put both hands on their noses before you shut doors, which ensures that no little fingers will be caught in a door,” says Dr. Singer, who is co-director of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center. “Continue the game by having children check their seat belts and door locks before starting out.”

Before a carpool even begins, parents should meet to talk about safety procedures, discipline, snacks, being on time, emergency phone numbers and even food allergies, according to the Yale psychologist, who spent many hours carpooling her own three sons and now takes her turn with several grandchildren. She suggests keeping the carpool meeting casual and cautions that having written guidelines might make things feel antagonistic. But never go anywhere without the telephone numbers of the other parents at home and work, and the names of back-up family or friends who can be called in an emergency, she says.

Some children react violently to foods such as peanuts and chocolates, so special precautions need to be noted and parents should agree on approved snacks. Do not allow hard candy or lollipops. A child can choke easily, especially if you must stop suddenly.

Discipline can be a contentious issue, she warns. “If things get out of hand, pull off the road to let everyone have a cooling off period before you continue on your way. If a child continues to misbehave, phone his or her parents when you get home, and if the unruly behavior continues, you may have to drop the child from the car pool,” she says. “Decide with the other parents how many chances children get before being excluded.”

Equally important, parents must explain the rules to their children and review them occasionally to be sure everyone understands what kind of behavior is expected in the car, Dr. Singer says.

According to the Nissan study, parents believe that one of carpooling’s greatest benefits is the opportunity to spend time with their children. A parent can learn a great deal about the youth culture, Dr. Singer says, and may find teenagers are more willing to open up in the car or to each other about their concerns. “Never wear headphones in the car,” she adds, “not only because of the safety risk but because you need to listen to what the children are talking about. Sometimes you can learn a great deal about your own child when you listen wisely.”

For younger children, the trip may drag. Take along finger puppets, sing along with audiotapes or listen to story tapes. Give smaller children magnetic boards with numbers and letters instead of using pencils or crayons, which can roll to the floor. Older kids can play checkers or chess using magnetic game boards. The local library is a good source of game ideas, like spotting license plates from different states or obstacle signs along the road.

“Prepare a list of things to do in the car and post it on your refrigerator or bulletin board,” Dr. Singer advises. “Keep a copy in the car so you can refer to it before you set out.”

Bring some things for you to do in the car while you are waiting for ballet lessons to end or for kids to return from a scout trip. You can read, sew, knit, work cross-word puzzles, catch up on correspondence, plan your menus for the week, listen to favorite tapes or just close your eyes, relax and daydream, she says.