The right way to hold the steering wheel

The most obvious piece of equipment in anyone’s vehicle is the steering wheel. It is difficult to ignore, after all, when it is positioned directly in front of the driver.

There are all sorts of unique things about every steering wheel, which are often overlooked or ignored by many drivers. For instance, how many drivers can find the straight wheel position, when blindfolded, from any starting position? Every professional driver worth his or her salt knows the following drill.

Think of the steering wheel as a clock. From maximum position left or right, the wheel will be straight, after the open upper part of the steering reaches the 12 o’clock position, twice. This method will result in a straight-ahead wheel position for 90 per cent of passenger cars and light trucks.

The steering wheel position is very important for both control and comfort. A driver should be able to comfortably rest the right wrist on the top of the steering wheel from the seated position. This measured distance will give the driver optimum body distance from the wheel. The driver’s feet should be able to reach the floor under the brake and accelerator of the vehicle.

It is best to make turns in a hand-over-hand manner, but a wheel shuffle, without the hands crossing, is acceptable on any North American driver’s test. Many police forces use the shuffle method rather than the crossover method. European and Asian jurisdictions are also partial to the shuffle technique.

There are many drivers who palm the wheel when they steer around corners or make turns. When this steering method is consistently used on a driver’s test, the driver will likely fail the test. The rationale for such a dramatic result has to do with the theory of vehicle control. Agree or disagree, it is the policy in most testing jurisdictions.

Consistently placing the hand inside the steering wheel, in an underhand position, will also result in a failing grade on a novice driver’s test. The reason given for such a severe penalty is the potential for wrist damage in a crash. Leverage and range is also limited with this method. Although I do not always agree with the severity of the penalty points allocated to improper hand positioning on a driver’s test, it is a fact of life.

In both methods, it is important to keep the hands to the outside of the wheel. Airbags inflate faster than the blink of an eye. If a driver insists on a hand position that is placed inside the wheel, it may result in catastrophic injury or even death in a crash. The arms and hands in this situation become trapped between the wheel and the driver, and have been known to cause significant injury in a crash. Drivers who steer using one hand strategically positioned at the top of the wheel, risk brain injury or worse in a serious crash.

The inclusion of the airbag as a safety device has changed even the most basic of assumptions. This relatively new advice for hand positioning is designed to reduce injury from the deployment of the airbag. Most of us were trained to keep the hands at the 10 and two o’clock position when we were first learning to drive.

Believe it or not, this iron-clad rule has been changed to the three and nine o’clock position.

There are a number of vehicle manufacturers who have greatly reduced the airbag radius containment within the steering wheel. This has reduced the risk of appendage injury upon deployment.

In every instance of direction control, the steering wheel is your best friend – use it correctly.

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.

Photograph by: Ted Jacob, Calgary Herald