Who'll sit on the hump?

Kids knew about carpools long before the high price of gas.

Parents have been taking turns behind the wheel ever since the first five mothers drove into the first nursery-school parking lot, got out of their cars, and asked each other, "Why are we all here?"

Those may well have been the last friendly words spoken regarding that carpool. There's no getting around it. Driving a carpool full of kids is less than blissful.

Carpool drivers routinely deal with homesickness, carsickness, name calling, hair pulling, and ear-shattering hilarity. The only thing that keeps us driving is the promise of days when we don't have to drive at all.

After driving several hundred miles with other people's children in the car, I've learned that a little preparation can make driving days less hectic. Before the carpool picks up its first passenger, the drivers should get together and settle several important issues: p

1. Punctuality. Carpools operate on the premise that several people are going to the same place at the same time. Drivers and parents of passengers should make a solemn vow of readiness.

Passengers should be waiting in front of their homes -- or just inside their front doors -- with an adult peeking out the window to check on them. When the carpool arrives, the peeker should wave in recognition of the fact that the child is getting into the right car.

Likewise, the peeker should wave and open the front door for the child when the carpool returns.

Occasionally a rider, driver or peeker may be late, but it's unreasonable to expect the driver to park the car, get out and run to the front door to fetch or deposit every child every time. And it's irresponsible for a driver to drop off a 3-year-old without being certain an adult is present.

2. Sick-leave policy. Carpool drivers are not allowed to get sick or leave town when it's their turn to drive. If they do, they should at least arrange for a substitute.

3. Weather. The schools in this area generally decide this one in favor of the carpool driver. Some drivers, though, are even more particular than school officials when it comes to road conditions.

If a driver is afraid he might meet a snowflake on the way to ballet lessons, he should consider himself sick and arrange for a substitute accordingly.

4. Safety. To deliver passengers in one piece, it should go without saying -- but, alas, it often doesn't -- that every passenger should wear a seat belt for his own safety and the driver's sanity. Otherwise, you never know who's going to fall out a window or into your lap.

Don't move the car until everyone is belted. If someone takes off his belt while you're driving, pull over and don't move again until you hear the buckle click.

5. Seating. Arranging five 4-year-olds in a car can be every bit as tricky as setting 200 guests at a state dinner. Dinner guests, at least, aren't likely to throw a public tantrum if they can't sit next to a window and/or their best friend.

Some carpool drivers use a simple rotation system to ensure that Mary, who sat in the middle of the back seat last time, sits in the front passenger seat next time. Even 3-year-olds understand the importance of taking turns.

This system, admittedly, can be confusing, especially if you drive in more than one carpool. But I've found that kids who can't remember to put on their socks in the morning never forget whose turn it is to sit by the left rear window on Tuesday.

But no matter how fair the seating arrangements, young passengers eventually find something to fight about. That's why many experienced carpool drivers wouldn't dream of starting their engines without a mental list of silly songs and word games to interrupt name-calling and hair-pulling sessions.

And the games and songs aren't just for the kids. Trying to remember what I took to grandmother's house once helped me forget I was in a dead car with five 4-year-olds, waiting for a tow truck.