Is Your Car Driving Position Comfortable & Safe?

Featured in “What Car” Magazine (UK)
February 2009

girl-drivingYou could be putting your health at risk by having the wrong driving position.  Our simple guide will help you to avoid injury.

Back pain is a massive problem that costs the UK economy more than £2 billion every year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Nearly two-thirds of readers at Whatcar.com say that they suffer from back pain behind the wheel, so dodgy seats or a poor driving position could account for bills running into millions of pounds.

You can reduce the impact simply by sitting properly at the wheel – so we used three volunteers, two osteopaths and advice from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy to find out how to get into a good driving position.

The Experts:  Richard Budd & David Knight.  GOsC Registered; Osteopathy, Pilates and Rehabilitation

We’ll talk you through the potential problems and the related risks and, more importantly, tell you how to set everything up properly to you can get comfortable in your car.  Follow our guide and we’ll put you on the road to new found flexibility.

Symptoms of a bad driving position

Besides the back pain that the majority of those polled say they suffer from, there are other ailments to consider.  Foot cramps, neck aches, eyestrain and shoulder tension can all stem from a poor driving position.

‘Driving injuries are often the result of years of abuse from a poor driving position, so just because you’re not experiencing any discomfort right now doesn’t mean you aren’t damaging your body,’ says osteopath Richard Budd.  ‘It’s much tougher to put right an issue than to prevent it in the first place.’

It’s not all about discomfort and long-term damage, either – how you sit behind the wheel affects your ability to control the car and your chance of injury in a collision.  If you sit too far away from the wheel, you might not be able to make the sudden changes of direction necessary to avoid an accident.  If you sit too close, you’ll increase your chances of injury in an accident – either by hitting the steering wheel, dashboard or even from the airbag that’s designed to protect you in such an incident.

There’s more: the part of the seat commonly known as the ‘head rest’ isn’t actually a ‘rest’ at all – it’s a restraint that’ designed to prevent your neck being damaged or even snapped in a crash.  Despite that, many drivers leave it in the position set at the factory, which means it’s of little or no help in an accident.

The solution

Set up your driving position properly.  It’ll only take a minute or two by using the 10-point guide, and could instantly make your car journeys healthier, safer and more comfortable.

You will be limited by the number of adjustments available in your car, of course.  Setting up a decent driving position in many older or cheaper models won’t be easy because they generally offer fewer seat and steering wheel adjustments.  You might be able to alter only the seatback angle and the distance from the pedals, but even then you should be able to significantly improve matters.

If you end up making major changes, your new driving position will probably feel odd for a while.  Stick with it, though, and you’ll soon adjust – within a month, all three of our case study subjects felt improvements.

If you suffer from a bad back or another injury aggravated by driving, changing how you sit might not cure the problem, since such complaints are sometimes caused by long-term abuse.  Try the new position for a week or so, and if the issue hasn’t cleared up, consider seeking one-on-one professional help – or even changing cars if your current motor’s driving position isn’t very good.

Choosing Your Next Car

Few people make driving position the biggest priority when choosing their next car.  Comfort might cross your mind on the brief test drive, but chances are it won’t get your full attention.

So what should you do?  Firstly, read the ‘Behind the wheel’ and ‘Ride and handling’ sections of our road tests online, or in the What Car? New Car Guide, for the models you’re looking at.  Doing so will flag up any flaws in the driving position and ride quality.  However, just because a car gets the thumbs up from us doesn’t necessarily mean that is will suit your body shape – you will need to spend a considerable amount of time behind the wheel to check that.

Ride quality is important, too, because whole-body vibrations increase the risk of spinal injury, and when you’re sitting down there’s already added pressure on the discs.  Less vibration through the seat means less stress on your back, so smoother is definitely better.

If you’re buying a new car, badger the salesman to let you drive it for a day or so – some manufacturers (Lexus, Peugeot and Renault, for instance) offer their customers a 24- or 48- hour test drive as standard.

Ask to test drive a car in the trim level you’re interested in.  Demonstration cars are often top-of-the-range models, so may be fitted with adjustments not available in popular trims (such as lumbar support, seat-height adjust and lockable head restraints).  Check the brochure carefully to find out which model trims come with which adjustments – a much better driving position may not cost you much more money.

If you’re buying a second-hand car, drive it for as long as possible (at least an hour) before deciding, and even consider renting that model for a weekend to test it properly.  Either way, take along this magazine and set up the driving position using our 10-point guide before setting out.

Whatcar? Says…

Motorists are, understandably, wrapped up in ways to cut costs at the moment, and are overlooking crucial health and safety issues such as their driving position.  Changing yours could save your life – and that’s no exaggeration.  Even if you are lucky enough to avoid any accidents, sitting incorrectly when you are behind the wheel could still damage your body irreparably, and could go on to cause you a great deal of discomfort in the process.

Setting up the perfect driving position

Try this 10-point guide, which is based on recommendations from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (www.csp.org.uk), to set up the perfect driving position in your car.  Before you start, take time to familiarise yourself with all the adjustments available.

Step 1

Get seat into the initial set-up position:

  • Steering wheel fully up and forward.
  • Seat as low as possible.
  • Seatbase tilted so the front edge is as low as possible (if applicable).
  • Seatback is approximately 30 degrees reclined from vertical.
  • Lumbar adjustment is fully backed off.
  • Whole seat back as far as possible.

Step 2 (if applicable)

  • Raise the seat as high as you find comfortable to improve your view.
  • Check your head has adequate clearance from the roof lining.
  • Ensure your vision of the road isn’t impaired.

Step 3

  • Move the seat forward until you can depress both the clutch and accelerator pedals with ease.
  • Check that the seat height is as high as you feel comfortable and that your head has adequate clearance from the roof lining (if applicable).

Step 4 (if applicable)

  • Adjust the seatbase tilt angle so the thighs are supported by the cushion.
  • Check there’s no pressure behind the knee.

Step 5

  • Adjust the seatback so it provides continuous support along the back, up to the shoulders – 110 degrees from the base should be about right.
  • Avoid an overly reclined position: this will cause excessive forward bending of the head and neck, and may force you to slide forward on the cushion.

Step 6 (if applicable)

  • Adjust lumbar support to ensure even pressure is applied along the length of the seatback.
  • Ensure lumbar support fits your back and is comfortable, with no pressure points or gaps.

Step 7 (if applicable)

  • Adjust steering wheel reach so that the palms of your hands rest on top of the wheel when you straighten your arms (don’t lean or stretch forward).
  • Move the wheel down until you have a clear view over the top without elongating your neck.
  • Check there’s adequate clearance for your thighs and knees when using pedals.
  • Ensure dash display is in full view and not obstructed by the wheel.

Step 8

  • Adjust the head restraint so the top is level with the top of your head.
  • Check there is a maximum of two inches between the front of the restraint and the back of your head.

Step 9

  • Adjust seatbelt height so it runs across your chest (if applicable).
  • Adjust all mirrors for an optimum view of the road behind.

Step 10

  • Repeat steps two to nine and fine-tune if necessary.

Two-minute Tension Buster

‘Even if you’ve managed to set up the perfect driving position, you might still be stiff after a long trip.  If so, try this two-minute tension-busting routine before you set off, when stopping for a break or after you’ve arrived.’

Each exercise should take approximately 20 seconds.

Shoulder Retractions / Back Extensions (Repeat five times)

  • Place arms behind back and hold elbows with opposite hands.
  • Breathe in deeply and feel your collarbones pull away from the breastbone.
  • Breathe out slowly and relax back into starting position.

Hand / Wrist Stretches (Repeat five times on each hand)

  • Reach forward with one arm, point fingers up and slowly pull them gently backwards towards you.
  • Release, then aim fingers at floor and repeat exercise.

Buttock Tone (Repeat five times)

  • Bring knees and feet together and breathe in while engaging your pelvic floor muscles (those you’d use to stop urinating) and abdominal muscles.
  • Then gently squeeze buttock muscles together.
  • Breathe out and relax the buttocks.

Shoulder Circles (Repeat five times)

  • Breathe in as you move shoulders forward and lift up towards ears, then slowly roll shoulders back and lower while breathing out.

Neck Retractions / Abdominal Lifts (Repeat five times)

  • Breathe in and retract head (to give yourself a double chin) while gently engaging your pelvic floor muscles (as in ‘buttock tone’ – see above).
  • Lift abdominal muscles away from pubic bone.
  • Exhale to relax, (without collapsing the head, neck or back position).

Ankle Circles (Repeat on each leg)

  • Straighten the leg, then stretch the heel as far away from you as possible (so the top of your foot lifts towards your knee, keeping toes relaxed).
  • Then circle ankle five times in each direction.

IMPORTANT: Stop performing the exercises if they exacerbate the problem.

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