The Classic American Road Trip: The Official Rules for Calling Shotgun

The line between harmony and chaos is quite thin. There are but a few behavioral conceits that distinguish us from wild animals, the separate us from complete civil breakdown, that preserve the delicate and precarious balance preventing us from hurtling into total anarchy. Among them, few codes of conduct are more sacred, more vital, or more essential to the continuity of our fragile existence than the Official Rules for Riding Shotgun.

Wells Fargo Stage Coach

In the simplest terms, the game of shotgun is a competition for the right to ride in the front seat of the car and all the seniority that this implies because, let’s face it, nobody likes being in the back seat, relegated from the adult conversation, reduced to asking others to turn down the heat, trapped inside by child safety locks. And while calling Shotgun may seem like fun and games, but just like in the days of covered wagons, there are serious responsibilities that come with the sacred privilege of occupying this seat. Moreover, you can’t just expect that because you have earned shotgun, you can’t lose it just as quickly. Claiming shotgun is about precision timing and heads up play. Keeping shotgun is about responsibility and support. Both require an awed deference to the Rules of Order. Without further ado, we begin our review of the Official Rules for Calling Shotgun. May the best passenger win!


road trip

1. Calling Shotgun

The first and most important rule in shotgun is that you must call it out loud. The first person to utter the phrase “shotgun” earns the right to sit in the front passenger-side seat of the automobile, truck, tractor, or Zamboni. In the case of a combination motorcycle, shotgun affords the winner a coveted seat in the sidecar.

2. Timing It Right

You may only call shotgun when the driver is in earshot. Furthermore, both you and the driver must have already exited the establishment from which you are departing. If said establishment lacks walls, windows, roof, and a door (also commonly referred to as “outside”), both driver and would-be front seat passenger must be within eyeshot of the vehicle. And a word of advice: if you plan to call shotgun, do it with a little volume.

3. Settling a Tie

A tie occurs when two or more contenders utter “shotgun” simultaneously. At this juncture, Shotgun must be determined by a footrace. The first of the competitors to make contact with the passenger-side door handle wins the draw, and thus, becomes the bearer of frontsies.

riding shotgun

4. Default Riders

Now before you get all up in a huff about your right to shotgun, remember that there are a few proprietary considerations that override even the most timely shotgun call. When riding with a romantically entwined couple where one party is the driver, the significant other has a default claim to shotgun. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t mess with this one. Just suck it up and get in the back.

5. Driver Fail

In the unlikely event that a driver is unable to perform his or her chauffeuring duties, whether because of illness, inebriation, or sudden-onset-adult-narcolepsy, he or she will automatically be rewarded shotgun. In this case, stand-in driving duties will be vested in the most readily capable passenger.

Back Seat Riders

6. Backseat Riders

Once shotgun has been officially delegated—a process which by its very nature should take only a split second—it falls on the vehicle’s remaining passengers to stake their claim on a prime backseat spot. A call of “No b!#*h” protects the claimant from relegation to the middle or “b!#*h seat.” This rule derives from the fact that sitting in the middle back seat super sucks. In the event that one is riding with an exceptionally large person who feels that he or she must employ the full reclining extension of either the driver- or passenger-side front seat, one would be within one’s full legal right to stake a claim to the roomier of the two back window seats.

7. The Balk

You’ve successfully called and won shotgun so you’re totally home-free, right? Not so fast. You aren’t in the seat just yet. There’s a moment when everything hangs in the balance, that blink-of-an-eye between the time the driver hits the unlock button and the time the mechanism on your side clicks open. You know exactly what happens if you jerk the handle early. Your door is stuck in that limbo between locked and unlocked, closed and open. You’ll sheepishly look at the driver and ask for a reprieve. But dude, that’s really annoying. Now you have to re-close the door with a hip-check, then the driver has to click lock then unlock again. That’s seven seconds that none of us will ever get back. And for that, my friend, you no longer get to ride shotgun. Tough break but it’s the only way you’ll learn.

8. Fight Club

In a perfect universe, every claim to shotgun would be backed by good, solid, court-admissible evidence. But the universe is by no means perfect. People disagree and sometimes strenuously at that. As history has shown, all individuals will tend to view events through their own unique lens. Where shotgun is concerned, this often leads to confrontations, raised voices, and cartoon violence. In these instances, a driver who wishes not be to be troubled with the responsibility of mediating an outcome can declare “survival of the fittest.” Once this state or relative anarchy is declared, those who wish to defend the claim for shotgun may use any physical means necessary to be the first with a butt in the seat. Once the butt is down, the seat is spoken for. At this juncture, any attempt to oust this butt from its resting place will be viewed as an act of unsanctioned hostility to be redressed in whatever disciplinary manner the driver sees fit. Suggested punishments in this instance include a swift flick to the forehead, a Wet Willie or, during flu season, its more-sanitary-but-still-unpleasant variation, the Dry William.

Spiderman Grafitti

9. The Spider-Man Principle

Of the many life-lessons we can draw from the parable of Marvel’s Spider-Man, perhaps the most valuable is this: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This might well be the credo of the shotgun rider, for the one who lands this privileged position also lands a critical support role during the journey from Point A to Point B and all points beyond. This means that you are beholden to any and all reasonable requests issued by the driver that are not explicitly stated hereafter but fall within the realm of effecting safe passage for all of the vehicle’s occupants.

10. One Man Band

Remember, first and foremost, that control of the music is deferred to the driver. Unless you have explicit permission or a precedent within the given relationship, keep your hands off the dial. If the driver wants to spend a four hour stretch listening to solo Art Garfunkel, that is his or her right. You may want to re-examine your relationship, but now is neither the time nor the place. In a healthy and functional relationship, there’s a good chance the driver will defer DJ’ing responsibilities to shotgun. In this event, you have the responsibility to ensure enjoyment and protect the driver and other passenger from irritations like radio commercials, transitional silence, or Justin Bieber. In the event that you fail egregiously in your duties by misreading the vibe in the car, oafishly stopping a song during its emotional high point, or conversely, failing to change the station from a Nickelback song in anything more than 12 seconds, you will lose your shotgun duties and be remanded to the back seat. In the event that the Nickelback song originated on your iPod, you may in fact be asked to exit the vehicle altogether. See Rule #22 for reference on determining a new shotgun rider.


11. Flight of the Navigator

When you claim shotgun, you are also making a pretty bold statement about your suitability for navigation. In the event that the directions are unknown to the driver, it becomes the responsibility of the shotgun rider to consult GPS or, if you happen to be driving in 1974, a roadmap. If you feel that you cannot perform these duties, you really have no business being in the front. If you happen to be a dolt when it comes to directions, save everybody a whole lot of time and a potential wrong turn into a scary neighborhood and just sit in the back.

12. Mobile Telephony

Back in the day, riding shotgun meant that you actually brandished a shotgun. Today, it’s the driver’s smart phone that you must brandish. Provided you value your safety, you can’t have the driver texting, googling, or tweeting behind the wheel. At the risk of sounding like your dad, it isn’t smart, it isn’t safe, and you’re stupid if you do it, so don’t. This, of course, means that all smart phone responsibilities fall upon the shotgun rider including the transmission of text messages, phone number reconnaissance, and debate mediation by way of Wikipedia. This rule states that you are bound to do whatever the driver tells you with said smart phone short of taking incriminating selfies, which you can do but that’s your call.

13. Food Services

Yup, this one can be a little degrading but you are in charge of opening all water bottles, unwrapping all candy bars, and unsheathing all beef jerkies. Your responsibilities will vary here, depending upon the driver’s innate abilities and their relative squeamishness about having others handle their food. Some drivers could independently navigate the 405 at rush hour while dressing a shawarma. Others couldn’t chew gum in a rural parking lot without dinging a bale of hay. Act accordingly. Especially on a long road trip, the driver’s ability to focus and make good time will depend on regular nourishment. If this means handing-feeding your driver one Dorito at a time, so be it.


14. The Gatekeeper and Keymaster

The shotgun rider is responsible for jumping to action any time a gate must be opened, a garage code must be punched in, or three riddles must be answered correctly at the behest of a magical troll. The same also applies to the fast removal of branches, trash cans, or errant lawn gnomes that might block the vehicle’s safe passage. The passenger will never lose his or her claim to shotgun for exiting the car to attend to these responsibilities.

15. Parallel Parking

As with Rule #13, your responsibilities here will vary depending upon both the driver’s abilities and environmental conditions. In events where these factors prompt the need for assistance, it falls upon the shotgunner to roll down a window, exit the car, and assist the driver as he or she attempts to wedge a minivan into a space the size of a shoebox. This means standing curbside and saying “You’re good. You’re good. You’re good. Stop!” and repeating the action as many times as the situation dictates. Be careful here. If you let the driver nudge another car on either side, you’ve officially blown it. The whole point of you even getting out of the car was to prevent this very thing from happening. Sorry McGoo, but you won’t be sitting shotgun on the ride home.

old gas station

16. Gas It Up

Shotgun also makes you the attendant-on-duty when the vehicle pulls up to a service station. This one is pretty self-explanatory though fiduciary responsibility is a matter subject to situational variations. On long trips, all riders are expected to contribute to the cost of fuel. In the case of shorter runs to the liquor store, the convenience mart, or the ice cream parlor, the cost typically falls on the driver. In any event, the shotgunner is not inherently responsible for paying at the pump. Your responsibility at the gas station is a physical one, except in New Jersey where self-serve doesn’t exist and attendants give you the stink-eye for even touching the pump. Again, it is noteworthy here that the passenger will never lose his or her claim to shotgun for exiting the car to attend to these responsibilities.

17. Remain Conscious

Underlying each and every one of the above-noted responsibilities is this very sacred commandment: though shalt not sleep on the job. A sleeping shotgunner is basically worthless. In addition to being rendered incapable of meeting any of the provisions outlined above, the snoozer is failing in the most basic and critical of duties, which is ensuring that the driver is also awake. On longer road trips, the ability to fulfill this role becomes a matter of great importance. If you fall asleep in the front seat, it goes without saying that you’ll be pitched into the back seat at the nearest pull-off. But you should also be warned that other passengers have the right—some might even say the responsibility—to draw on your face with any available non-toxic, non-permanent writing utensils. See Rule #22 for reference on determining a new shotgun rider.

18. Cop-Watch

As the vehicle’s second-in-command, you are the first line of defense against the local constabulary. Whether your driver enjoys speeding, switching lanes without a signal, or placing high stakes bets on illegal underground mixed martial arts competitions, it falls upon you to ensure that these questionable activities may be conducted without interference by local law enforcement. Indeed, your shotgun designation makes you the top accomplice to any and all behavior which might result in a road-side stop. Thus, the shotgun rider must keep his or her eyes cast on the road ahead at all times. It is your vigilance that could be the difference between a smooth ride and an unwanted brush with the fuzz.

route 66 sign

19. Silence Your Inner-Critic

So your buddy drives the car like it’s an old lady nursing a hip replacement. So there are mothers with strollers passing you on the sidewalk. So you’re moving so slowly that you can clearly hear every expletive hurled at your car from the frustrated motorists behind you. As the shotgun rider, there’s nothing you can do about it. So long as the driver is neither endangering you nor other motorists, you have to bite your tongue. Shotgun does not give you the right to tell the driver how to drive, even if he or she kind of stinks at it. Of course, if your driver starts mowing down mailboxes and meter maids, you can intervene. But if the offense is driving too slow, missing turns, or pump-accelerating in a way that makes everybody nauseous, you sort of have to hope that somebody in the back complains. They already have nothing to lose.

20. Be Cool — Don’t Be a Tool

This is perhaps the rule most vulnerable to individual interpretation. At its core, the provision states that the shotgun rider must make all efforts to be cool. Spending significant portions of the ride yammering on your cell phone is not cool. Constantly and indiscriminately fiddling with the air conditioner, defogger, and windows to the discomfort of all other passengers is not cool. Playing the Spice Girls and singing along at the top of your lungs like it’s supposed to be funny is not cool. As the beholder of shotgun, you are the liaison between driver and backseat passengers, the tissue that binds the car together, the Ringo to the rest of the Beatles. Say what you want about Ringo but the dude is cool. And the other Beatles liked hanging out with him. Be like Ringo. Be cool and the whole car will be cool with you. Act like a tool and you’ll be in the back seat faster than you can say “Pete Best.”

open road

21. End of the Line

Well, it was a sweet ride but it had to end some time. Once the car is parked, the key removed from the ignition, and all occupants exited, your glorious reign is over. It doesn’t matter if you all walk inside a restaurant, find out that it has a 60 minute wait, say “nuts to that, let’s just go to Applebees” and walk out in the space of 30 seconds. The race for shotgun starts all over again. You can always call it again if you’re fast enough but, honestly, that’s kind of a jerk move.

22. Fives

There is one way and one way only to retain your right to shotgun even after standing up and exiting the car for reasons other than the attendance of your shotgun duties. Here, the rules of shotgun defer to the separate but entwining doctrine held by the Ancient Order of Fives. This dictates that the holder of any seat, be it couch, stool, or chaise lounge, may depart to grab a drink, place a wager, or answer to nature’s call, and return within the space of five minutes to reclaim his or her chosen throne. The individual in question need only call “fives” before departing. These parameters extend to the shotgun passenger, who upon exiting the car briefly for any number of matters that might take roughly five minutes, may declare “fives” and preserve frontsies. A failure to declare “fives” in this circumstance means that all bets are off and that anybody may claim the front seat by force. Fair warning here that this is not the most sportsmanlike of conduct, but there’s no rule that says you can’t.

Dog riding shotgun

23. Getting Promoted

Once a shotgun rider has run afoul of his or her duties, or has simply run afoul of the driver’s good graces, each backseat rider has a fair claim to the shotgun position. When the driver has explicitly stated the decision to eject the original shotgun rider in a manner consistent with the rules stated here throughout, any of the backseat riders may exclaim “dibs,” which, in accordance with the Natural Laws of Dibs operating in perpetuity throughout the known universe, will earn said exclaimer passage to the front seat.

24. The Driver’s Code of Conduct

It’s not all dictated-texting and butlered Doritos for the driver. In fact, the driver holds the very serious responsibility of umpiring any and all matters relating to the call, assumption, retention, and performance of shotgun. Moreover, the driver is the mediator in disputed matters. It is incumbent upon the driver to deliver the final judgement in shotgun disputes so long as said judgement conforms to all terms stated here within. In the event that the driver does not wish to perform these duties, he or she may refer to the “survival of the fittest” provision outlined in Rule #8 above. Even in these instances, the driver must serve as the enforcer of the broader shotgun rulebook through the ensuing ride and beyond, lest he or she risk surrendering the authority and credibility inherently vested in the driver.

25. Shotgun Override

In spite of the driver’s role as the Supreme Car Justice in all disputes, he or she does not possess the right of “shotgun override.” Such as it is stated, this provision dictates that nobody, not even the driver, can reverse the outcome of a shotgun event in conflict with the rules and provisions stated here. One cannot, without just cause, be denied shotgun nor removed from shotgun upon firstly, audibly, and within the scope of the parameters stated here, calling and earning the seat. It is advised, thusly, that all drivers keep a copy of this document in a glove box or center console for consultation in the event of a dispute.

26. Irreconcilable Differences

Any disputes which truly do defy mediation based on the rules stated here can only be judiciously settled by an appearance before the World Council on the Administration of Shotgun Justice (WCASJ) or an independent commission appointed by said Council. Given that no such Council exists, the wait-time for due process is quite extraordinary and generally leads to universal out-of-court settlement or, in the case of instances where agreement cannot be reached, the total suspension of the intended vehicular journey.

girls in a car

Because Shotgun is constantly evolving for the greater benefit of mankind, new rules need to be created regularly. Anyone is welcome to implement their own rule if the situation arises. New rules often need to be created following a major discrepancy. If you know of any rules you think should be added to the “Official” list, comment below or shoot us an email at

Route 66 Sunset




48 thoughts on “The Classic American Road Trip: The Official Rules for Calling Shotgun

  1. Haha I love this! I never knew calling shotgun could be this complicated with this many details but it was fun to read. On my next road trip I’ll be pulling this article out for reference!

  2. So many rules to being or calling shotgun. And a huge responsibility. As for the final confrontations or raised voices, you mention, those are indeed present in many everyday life situations or in various games. It’s not easy to accept others win…

  3. Haha, this was so funny! I have motion sickness so I NEED to stay in the front on a roadtrip. Luckily, most of the times it’s just me and the driver, so there’s no need to fight for the front seat. 🙂

  4. I’ll have to bookmark this for my next road – although as it’s usually just my husband and I we already know who sits where, because I hate driving. I went through high school always rating the back of the car – obviously my social status didn’t rank high enough for shotgun. If only I’d known it came down to a foot race …

  5. Haha, never thought there could be so many rules to calling shotgun but I have to say I agree with most of them, even as an Aussie! I need to send this around to some of my friends. Not sure if total control of music lies with the driver though…

    1. That total musical control rule can be altered on a case by case basis. It’s based on the fact that the driver is usually the owner of the car. Plus the driver can always take musical suggestions

  6. Funny! I always have shotgun rights because my hubby is always the driver in all our road trips! And, since he is highly trained, I do not have many responsibilities but to munch Cheetos and to shoot pictures!

  7. Unfortunately my shotgun riders are all extremely lazy knowing that I’m pretty efficient at planning road trips and thank god for gps or else I would have some big issues with having a navigator that doesn’t like to navigate and sleep most of the time while I drive….nice rules

  8. Hilarious article and wonderful take. I am a fan of calling shotgun but according to my bf I am the worst at it as I always fall asleep. After reading this, I know I have to up my game!

  9. Wow, I must admit I had no idea about shotgun. I’ve never heard about this game before, but I’ll definitely try in on my next road trip because it seems to be so fun. You did a great job explaining the rules!

  10. LOL! Love this post 🙂 Great rules and perfect way to break everything down. I love the tie breaker rule! I usually end up in the backseat because I really don’t mind the back, but it’s great to have these in my back pocket just in case! I do however love the DJ responsibility that can come with shotgun 🙂

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