Body Posture: Understanding the Importance of the Correct Driving Position
More and more people live in suburban or even rural areas, while still working in urban areas. This is only possible due to automobiles – your daily commute means that you can live far from where you work. However, longer and longer commutes are becoming more common. We’re spending more and more time behind the wheel, and that makes it imperative to follow good ergonomics. Simply put, too many of us have poor posture while driving, and do not know the correct driving position for our bodies.
How much time would you say you spend behind the wheel each year? Most of us realize it’s a good chunk of our time, but fail to realize just how much of our lives is spent being a road warrior. According to AAA, the average American today now spends almost 300 hours per year doing nothing but driving. That’s the equivalent of seven 40-hour work weeks per year behind the wheel. Those numbers are also only for the average American – you might not be so average.
• Americans log 17,600 minutes per year driving
• American’s drive 10,900 miles per year on average
• Men are more likely to spend more time on the road than women (18% more time)
• Almost every home in America has one car per driver in the household, and some have more cars than drivers
• Drivers between the ages of 30 and 49 log the most miles of any group (13,506 per year in 2016)
The Repercussions of Long Drives
Long drives are exhausting, physically and mentally. They also take a toll on your body – your muscles stiffen and cramp, your limbs go numb. In many cases, you might develop tension in your neck, shoulders or arms that can lead to serious pain. In addition to making you feel physically uncomfortable, the wrong driving position can negatively affect your health, particularly in the case of long drives, or many hours spent behind the wheel consecutively (over the course of a year, for instance).
• Back discomfort and low back pain are frequent complaints of drivers
• Foot cramps are commonly reported with poor driving ergonomics
• Repetitive driving injuries are on the rise among US drivers, as well as Canadian and European drivers
• Long hours spent driving have been linked to difficulty sitting or standing for other job duties
• Finger and hand cramps are commonly reported by drivers with poor posture
It’s not just about musculoskeletal health, either. According to a 2014 article published in Time Magazine, driving for long periods also leads to a wide range of other health conditions, including:
• Raised blood sugar
• Raised blood pressure
• Elevated cholesterol levels
• Increased risk of depression
• Increased anxiety
• Reduced quality of life
• Reduced happiness
Limiting your time behind the wheel can help you avoid the non-musculoskeletal conditions we mentioned, but it’s vital for you to have the right posture and driving position in order to avoid physical pain and discomfort, cramps, and even permanent conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. To help you avoid those issues, we’ve compiled a list of what you need to do to ensure the right posture while driving.
1. Adjust Your Seat Height
One of the most often missed considerations when it comes to your driving position is seat height. In the past, most vehicles had no way to raise or lower the seat. The seats were designed for the “average” person, and were only adjustable forward and back. The problem is that there’s really no such thing as an average person – we’re all physically unique. Today, more vehicles come with seat height adjustment capabilities.
Using the wrong seat height can cause a number of problems. One of those is that it puts undue stress and strain on your calves, legs and knees. It can also make it difficult to see over the steering wheel and dash, causing you to strain your neck to see properly. It can even make it difficult to see the gauges and controls.
Not sure if your seat is positioned optimally? Sit down in the driver seat, and put your foot on the brake pedal. Make sure you are in a position similar to what you would use while driving. Now, check that there is enough room between the back of your knee and the seat to fit two fingers. You also need to make sure that your knees and hips line up straight – too many people drive with their knees higher than their hips, which can cause muscle strain and discomfort. If you cannot see out of the windshield with your hips and knees lined up, raise your seat so that your hips are higher than your knees.
Don’t forget that many cars today have adjustable steering wheels. If you find that lining up your knees and hips means that you’re contacting the steering wheel, you may only need to raise it. Taller drivers may need to move the seat as far back as comfortable before raising the seat. The steering wheel may also need to be adjusted down in order to sit comfortably while holding it.
Does your car not allow you to adjust the height of your seat? You can get around this issue by placing a cushion under you to bring your hips and knees into better alignment. Take care that the cushion does not raise you too high, though. You should not have to duck your head to look out the driver front window.
2. Adjust Your Seat Position
Even the least adjustable driver seat today offers multiple points of articulation – movement capabilities that allow you to adjust the seat and seat back to your preferred position. Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll want to consider when adjusting your seat position:
Seat Back: The back of your seat can be adjusted from almost clamshell-like tightness, to near horizontal. Obviously, neither of those two extremes will be workable, and you’ll want to position your seat back somewhere in the middle. It’s actually best to shoot for about a 100-degree angle between the seat base (where you sit) and the seat back. You should not have to hunch forward to reach the wheel, and your elbows should be slightly bent, but not sharply bent. This gives you the best angle for driving, visibility and control, while at the same time alleviating pressure on your lower spine (remember that low back pain is one of the most often cited complaints of drivers). Ideally, your shoulders should remain against the back of the seat when you make a turn. If they pull forward, the angle of the back is wrong.
Forward/Backward: You can adjust your seat as far forward or backward as you need for comfort, but remember that you do not want to sacrifice control in this situation. This will depend a great deal on your height, as well as the length of your legs (versus the length of your torso, which also plays into overall height). Move the seat forward until your knees are slightly bent while driving. You should be able to reach the pedals without having to stretch.
Headrest: Your headrest is there to provide support while driving, and also plays an important role during crashes (they’re actually called head restraints). You want to position the headrest so that the back of your head rests in the center of the headrest while you are driving. In a perfect scenario, the top of your head will be even with the top of the headrest. However, this may not be possible in all situations, depending on the size of the headrest in question.
Lumbar Support: Lumbar support is not offered universally, but it is becoming more and more common. Really, this is nothing more than an adjustable portion of the seat back that fits into the contour of your lower spine. It can be adjusted so that it is more or less pronounced. In a perfect fit, it will help alleviate lower back pain and stiffness, ensure good posture, and can even help fight fatigue. The best fit is one where the lumbar portion of the seat back completely fills the curve of your spine. Does your car not have a lumbar support feature? You can mimic this by rolling a cloth towel into a tube and placing it between your back and the seat. You can also purchase foam lumbar supports at your local auto parts store.
When it comes to positioning your seat, make sure you are not too far from the steering wheel and other controls. For instance, if you have to lean forward and take your eyes off the road to adjust the HVAC system, your seat is not properly adjusted.
You also need to remember your seatbelt. Make sure that you can fasten it securely and comfortably. The top belt should cross your shoulder, and should not contact your neck. It should be no lower than your shoulder, either.
3. Adjust the Position of Your Body
While ensuring that your seat is positioned correctly is vital to good driving ergonomics, it is just as important to know how to position your body while driving. In this section, we’ll run down how to position all of your limbs for comfort, safety and control while on the road.
Feet: The position of your feet is vital to being able to stay safe and comfortable on the road. Make sure that your right foot is able to reach both the brake and the gas pedal when it is positioned roughly in front of the brake pedal. You should rest your right foot on heel, with the ball of the foot able to press the pedal. You should not press the pedal with your toes, or with your mid-foot. Note that if you are driving an automatic, then your left foot should rest on the foot support at the far left side of the driver front floorboard.
Arms: Both hands should remain on the steering wheel at all times. You should adjust the steering wheel so that you can sit comfortably between 10 and 12 inches from the center mass, where the airbag inflator is located. Remember that some steering wheels can adjust both scope (in/out) and rake (up/down). While driving, you should position your hands on the wheel with a 120-degree bend in your elbows.
Hands: It’s now recommended that you keep your hands at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, rather than at 10 and 2 as was previously recommended. This offers better leverage, but it requires that you use mostly your fingers and fingertips to control the wheel, rather than a full-hand grip.
Legs: As mentioned, your legs should be out in front of you, with your knees and hips as close to being aligned as possible. Never drive with your hips lower than your knees. Your knees should be slightly bent, but your feet should still be able to reach the pedals easily for good control.
Head/Neck: Your neck should be upright, with the center of the back of your head touching the center of the headrest. If you cannot touch the headrest, it must be adjusted to provide you with support, as well as to help prevent fatigue and strain of your neck.
4. What Poor Driving Posture Does to You
We’ve covered a lot of the potential injuries from poor driving posture already, but there’s more that you should know. The wrong driving position can have detrimental impacts on a range of other factors, and can cause more than muscle strain, back pain, and repetitive use injuries.
Poor Visibility: Perhaps the single most common issue with poor driving position, other than the potential for musculoskeletal injury, is that it means you cannot see as well as you should be able to. With the right driving position, you can see clearly out of the front windshield, the rear windshield, and all side windows. You should be able to also see clearly out of the rearview mirror, as well as both side view mirrors when they are properly adjusted. A lack of visibility means an increase in risk both to you and other people on the road.
Lack of Control: If you are not sitting in your car properly, then you are not in full control of the vehicle. This is never a good situation. Remember – you are essentially driving a 2,000-pound bullet. If you do not have complete control over it at all times, you’re putting your life in danger, as well as the lives of your passengers, and anyone else you encounter on the road.
A loss of control could cause you to run off the road, or crash into another vehicle. The right driving position will help ensure that you have full control over the steering, gas and brake (and clutch if so equipped), the visibility you need, as well as access to other controls like turn signals, hazard lights, windshield wipers, headlights and more.
Fatigue: Poor driving ergonomics are tiring. In fact, you’ll find that an improper sitting position in your car can lead to driving fatigue. Couple this with your usual tiredness, and you have a recipe for disaster. Fatigue can lead to you falling asleep behind the wheel, which can lead directly to a tragic accident. Even if you do not fall asleep behind the wheel, fatigue dulls your senses and slows your reaction times, making it far more likely that you’ll be involved in an accident.
5. Stop and Stretch on Long Drives
While ensuring that you have the right driving position is vital, it is not always enough, particularly on long drives. If you’re spending a lot of time behind the wheel, stopping and stretching can be a very good thing. This is particularly easy to do if you’re traveling by interstate, as you can just stop at rest stops. There are also some toll roads, such as Florida’s Turnpike, with frequent rest stops where you can get out and stretch. What benefits can you gain by doing this?
Helps Wake You Up: One of the best reasons to stop and stretch on a long drive is to get up and rejuvenate yourself. Long hours spent driving, even in the right position, can sap your endurance, lead to fatigue, and dull your reactions. By stopping, getting out and stretching, you sacrifice a small amount of time and gain a great deal of benefits. Movement encourages blood flow throughout your limbs, oxygenating your muscles. You also breathe more deeply, taking in additional oxygen. Getting out of the car, stretching and walking around will also energize you.
Reduces Pain and Tension: No matter how good your posture might be, you’ll find that long hours behind the wheel lead to pain and tension in your muscles. This can lead to unwanted problems, like muscle fatigue, where you have difficulty controlling your vehicle. It can also lead to cramps and tremors in your hands, which add to the difficulty of controlling your car. Before this happens, pull over and get out. Stretch your arms and legs. Flex your fingers. Walk around a parking lot at the rest area, and generally give your body a chance to shake off the pain and tension induced by long periods of driving.
Improves Flexibility and Reduces Stiffness: What’s your first reaction on arriving at your destination and getting out of the car after a long drive? Chances are good that it’s to groan in pain. Your muscles tighten and stiffen while you’re locked in the driver seat. They’re not able to flex the way they are designed to. This can cause pain, stiffness and inflexibility. In some cases, it can be almost debilitating, and it can be quite painful. If your drive is particularly long, you may need a half-day or even a full day just to recover from driving. By stopping and getting out, stretching and limbering up your muscles, you help prevent that stiffness from becoming painful, and you improve your flexibility.
Improves Reaction Time and Concentration: This benefit has less to do with alleviating physical discomfort than with improving mental function. While driving, you need full control of your mental faculties. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing, how your vehicle is behaving, the actions of other drivers around you, traffic conditions, weather conditions, and more. It can be very difficult to do that if you’re exhausted from driving for hours on end. Pull over, get out and stretch somewhere. This will improve blood flow and oxygenation to your brain, helping to keep you alert, boosting your concentration, and improving your reaction time, as well.
Where to Stop?
So, where should you pull over and stop? This is something that you’ll usually have to answer for yourself. As mentioned previously, rest stops on the interstate work very well. However, they’re not always that convenient. In that case, shoot for a well-lit, large truck stop, or a busy shopping center off one of the exits. What you’re really looking for is an area with plenty of light, a good number of other people, and few security or safety worries. You want somewhere that you can get out and walk, stretch your limbs, and do so without worrying.
Ultimately, driving will always have a negative impact on your body, and even on your mind if it goes on for too long. The right position will help you avoid the worst impact of long hours spent behind the wheel, such as physical injuries and deteriorating musculoskeletal conditions. However, you do need to be proactive to avoid the mental challenges that go hand in hand with driving for long periods, such as fatigue, and reduced reaction times. By finding the right position for your body and stopping to stretch periodically, you can stay happy and healthy while on the road.