Carpooling 101

While it’s not often thought of as such, a car pool is just as much a team effort as the soccer games we shuttle our kids to. Just like a sport, a car pool involves a group of people working together to reach a common goal – in this case, carting a clutch of kids from Point A to Point B, promptly and safely. Hallmarks of a successful car pool are dedicated captains (drivers), a good game plan, and sportsmanlike conduct by all players (kids and parents alike). To qualify for participation, you simply need to be reliable, respectful and – above all else – committed to safety. 

The Game Plan

The first step in organizing a car pool is finding parents in your area who need to get their kids to and/or from the same place at the same time. After identifying interested parties, hold a meeting with all the parents to discuss and agree on the following:

Pickup times and locations.

Driving route. It’s a good idea to maintain a routine, with all parents driving the same basic route. In case of emergency, other parents will know where to find you.

Driver schedules, printed and distributed to all members.

Contingency plans. This is important in case of sudden changes in driving schedules (if a driver can’t make a day, it’s his or her responsibility to swap with someone else).

Vacation dates and arrangements.

Emergency contact information and procedures. Make sure that these are distributed to all participants.

Late policy. Establish rules for latecomers and decide how long to wait (five minutes is standard).

Rules of Game

A car pool is a little self-contained society, with kids and adults of different temperaments thrown together in a confined space. To make the ride enjoyable and safe for all participants, every member of a car pool should understand and abide by the rules.

Be on time. “The number one rule of carpooling is ‘don’t be late,’” says Dawn Carrington. With three kids involved in soccer, ballet, swimming and Cub Scouts, Carrington has become a car-pool veteran. “If you’re late, you’re out,” she says. “It’s just not acceptable. If you’re the kind of person who is always running late, don’t volunteer to drive for a car pool. Think of other ways you can contribute, such as paying for gas, typing up driver schedules or baby-sitting.”

Likewise, Carrington says, “Kids should be ready and waiting for you when you arrive. You shouldn’t have to go to the door to get them.”

In Sidne Allinger’s car pool, anyone who is five minutes late is left behind. Allinger drives a morning car pool to school. “Everyone knows they have to arrive at the pickup point by 8:10; and if they’re not there by 8:15, I have to leave without them.”

Don’t do errands. Drive only from Point A to Point B. Pick up your dry cleaning later.

Don’t use a cell phone while you’re driving. If you must make a call, pull over.

Maintain your car. Make sure your car is gassed up and ready for the road. Follow your maintenance schedule. Keep it clean.

Lay down the law. On the first day you drive, spell out your road rules. Ask each child to look you in the eye and repeat them back to you, one by one. Rules might cover such things as rough-housing, yelling and whether or not you allow eating and drinking in your car (while you might let kids drink soda in your Honda, Mary might forbid Cheeto™-chomping in her white Mercedes). 

Safety Comes First

Driving records – Know the drivers you’re trusting with your child’s safety. Check driving records by simply asking them, “So, how’s your driving record?” or apply for a confidential record check at your local DMV (it costs about $7). Get all vehicle information, including make, model, year, color and license plate number.

Seating – Transport only as many children as you have seat belts or booster seats for. Never seat kids under age 13 and/or under 5-feet tall in the front seat, especially if the vehicle has a passenger-side airbag. Ensure that all kids are buckled up before taking off.

Password – If you’re not going to be driving on a particular day, remind your own child who will be. Come up with a password. If every driver and child knows it, a stranger won’t be able to trick kids into getting into the car on the pretense that he or she is filling in for the usual driver.

Pickup location – Establish a pickup spot where all the kids wait together for the car-pool driver.

Late policy – Make sure kids know what to do if you’re late. Have children carry a list of all drivers’ phone numbers and spare change so they can call a backup driver.

Drop-off policy – Wait for each child to enter his or her home before driving away.

Insurance – To protect yourself, carry at least $1 million of liability insurance, in addition to underinsured motorist protection. This costs only a few dollars more per year.

Keeping the peace – A car of happy kids is much safer than a car full of restless and unruly gremlins. Separate troublemakers. Head off backseat battles by engaging the kids with stories on tape, their favorite music or games like “Never-Ending Story,” in which one child starts a story and each child adds to it.

Car-Pool Cargo

While the average car-pool ride doesn’t last long, there’s still plenty of time for an emergency to strike. Be prepared. Always carry the following items in your car:

Documentation – A list of children’s names, ages and gender; their parents’ names and contact information; your name and emergency contact information. Also, keep a photocopy of each child’s health-insurance card, and notes about any allergies or medical problems (such as diabetes or asthma).

A first-aid kit and flashlight.

A cell phone for emergencies – It’s easier to make a call from the car than to shepherd five kids to a pay phone.

Incidentals – Tissues, baby wipes, bottled water and a garbage bag.

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

The benefits of carpooling go beyond saving your car from a little wear-and-tear, sparing the air by reducing exhaust emissions, and freeing up some of your time while someone else carts your kid around. One of the biggest benefits carpoolers enjoy is the companionship of their fellow riders.

Ruth Pangilinan drives four girls to a religious after-school program. “The girls don’t go to the same school, so they only see each other once a week at temple,” says the mother of two. “Sharing the ride has helped them get to know each other. Now they’re friends, and once a week they have a car party with each girl bringing food to share on the way home.”

The most important benefit of carpooling, Ruth says, is the sense of community it creates. “Being a member of a car pool helps build a caring community of trust between kids and adults. It’s real important for kids to learn to trust other adults. It helps prepare them for life in the big world.”