Say you’re driving and the person riding shotgun has been on his cellphone for 50 minutes or so. Talking about his neighbour’s pug dog or about his lazy co-worker or about what he saw last night on George Stroumboulopoulos. Something in that vein. Do you have the right then — according to accepted shotgun guidelines — to take his cellphone away from his mouth and ear and move it closer to one of his other orifices? I don’t know either. I’m just asking.

Because the basic rules for calling and riding shotgun have been around a long time, but technology — automotive and otherwise — has undergone tremendous change of late, and this is impacting the driver and front-seat passenger relationship, and possibly not always in a good way.

Of course, some Western pulp fiction writer coined the term “riding shotgun” back in the 1920s, referring to the armed guard that sat next to the driver of a stagecoach. It became entrenched in popular culture and began to gravitate to the automotive vernacular in the mid-1950s, when it was heard almost every week on the TV series Gunsmoke.

Discussions surrounding the rules for “calling shotgun” have literally become a small industry. Many websites are devoted to the topic, as are several publications.

Everyone must be familiar with the basic rules, such as: The first person to yell “shotgun” gets to ride in the front seat; shotgun may only be called if all occupants of the vehicle are outside and on the way to said vehicle; early calls are strictly prohibited; the driver has final say on all ties and disputes and has the right to suspend or remove all shotgun privileges.

A more obscure rule? If one passenger becomes so ill that the other occupants feel he/she will toss their cookies, then the ill person should be given shotgun to make appropriate use of the window.

I love shotgun philosophy because it entails so much of what it is to be human — luck, timing, skill, friendship, accommodation, survival of the fittest, acceptance, responsibility, and the pursuit of a code that everyone can agree on, but one that also needs constant revision and vigilance.

To that end I think people should take more pride in their shotgun roles. If you’re yakking on the cell or grooving to you personal iPod or scrolling your BlackBerry for big whacks of time then I believe you’re really letting the side down. Just because you actually don’t have to wield a shotgun while riding shotgun doesn’t mean you should lower your guard or your standards of companionship.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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