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Are You Sitting Comfortably?

One of the things that I’m sure you’ve noticed in a lot of new cars coming out these days is all the adjustable this and that in the seats, especially the driver’s seat.  You can adjust the seat angle, the seat back and how far the seat is from the steering wheel.  With a lot of seats, you can also throw in lumbar support and (oh glory – one of my favourite bells and whistles) heating and even cooling in the seats.  Then you’ve got the ability to adjust the steering wheel itself.

With the ability to adjust the seat to a position that’s just right, it’s something of an irony that a lot of us don’t really adjust the seat much at all, or not really beyond how far forward or back the seat is, plus the seat angle. And if this is all you do, you could be making a big mistake.

Believe it or not, seating position is actually a safety issue. This is for at least three reasons. Firstly, where and how you are seated affects things like how well you can see the road around you, including the mirrors and what’s over your shoulder (even if you have blind spot warning sensors on your vehicle, you still need to do a head check like your driving instructor told you to, just in case).  Secondly, the position of your legs and feet affects the speed of your reactions if you need to bang on the brake and/or the clutch – and the same applies to your hands and arms working the steering wheel. Thirdly, bad driving position also increases driver fatigue, which is a contributing factor in a lot of crashes.

Given the importance of proper seating position for road safety, you might wonder why cars don’t just come with one configuration. Fortunately, the powers that be haven’t decided that this is the best solution, mostly because even the densest pen-pushing analyst knows that you can’t have just one ideal seating configuration because humans don’t come with the ideal proportions of the Vitruvian Man, crash test dummies, Barbie, etc. etc. I’m thinking of the four drivers in my family. My son is tall and lanky to the extent that he nearly hits his head on the roof of little hatchbacks, but my daughter is petite. My husband is stocky with long arms and has long since traded his six-pack for a grown-up keg, and I’m average height but with a long torso in proportion to my legs. There is no way that a single seat configuration would suit every single member of the family and the mathematical average would end up with all of us sitting in less-than-ideal positions.

So you’re going to have to adjust your seat and make sure that you’re sitting comfortably – and properly.  Unfortunately, for a lot of people, what’s “comfortable” for them is not the best driving position. The worst of these “comfortable” positions are the two extremes: the driver (stereotypically young and male) who has the seat as back from the pedals as possible and the seat tilted back with the steering wheel low, and the driver (stereotypically older and female) who has hunches over a high steering wheel and the seat so far forward that she could just about steer it with her boobs or teeth.  These positions will be hell on your back and neck if you stay in them for a long time, and they don’t make for great road safety.

So what’s the right way to sit in the driver’s seat?

First, get yourself ready.  You want to have your back and front pockets free of house keys, wallets and cell phones (and put that phone somewhere you can’t reach it so you’re not tempted!). You also want to have footwear that plays nicely with the pedals. Footwear at both ends of the formality spectrum are unsuitable for driving, with work boots, flip-flop thongs, stiletto heels and wedge heels all being atrocious.  Even bare feet are better than those.  Flats and low heels that aren’t at the risk of coming off your feet or jamming around the pedals. Wear comfortable clothing, too. Anything that’s too tight, too baggy or itchy will distract you.

Now you can get into the car.  Firstly, let’s get the seat at the right distance from the pedals and the wheel.  Get it where you can rest your heels on the ground ready to operate your pedals and so your knees are slightly bent. Having your knees bent slightly but not too much reduces fatigue (a lot of us sleep with slightly bent knees) and also means that you can use more of your leg muscles if you need to bang on the brake hard and suddenly. Also play around with the seat height and tilt so that your hips are level with your knees.

Now for the seat back.  You want it somewhere so that you can have your elbows bent so that your wrists are straight when you hold the steering wheel correctly.  And the correct way to hold the steering wheel is the way that your driving instructor told you: 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock with your thumbs up as if you were holding wine glasses – or 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock if you want a bit of variation. What you need to avoid is 12 o’clock, or 5 o’clock and 7 o’ clock – and definitely not 6 o’clock!   The seat back should be tilted somewhere so that your shoulders can press against the back – if you have to hunch forwards, your seat is too far back. Now pull the headrest forward so it cushions your head.

Your bum should be pressed all the way back to where the seat back meets the seat of the seat.  You’ll strain your back if your bum is too far forward and there’s a big triangular gap between you and the seat back.  Lumbar support helps but your bum should still be well back.  Use cushions if you have short legs or if your car doesn’t provide you with lumbar support.

Some suggestions you see for ideal seat position go to the bother of telling you the ideal angles for this, that and the other thing. These are all very well in their way but forget that people don’t always have the proper proportions for the proper angles. I know that I don’t and if I have my seat back to the proper 100-degree angle recommended by some, I can’t bend my arms when holding the steering wheel.

Next, adjust the steering wheel.  You should be able to hold it correctly as described above. It should also not be squashed against your thighs or your stomach or any other bits. You should also get the height of the steering wheel to that happy medium where it doesn’t block your view of the windscreen or of the dashboard controls.  If you have to obscure some of the dashboard, make sure that you can see the important bits of the speedo so you can tell if you’re going over the speed limit.

Next, adjust all of your mirrors so you can see the road behind and around you. Never think that you can rely entirely on rear vision cameras and blind spot sensors.  You may also adjust the vents on the climate control system so you get a nice cooling breeze on your face or warm air to toast your chilly toes.

Lastly, put on your seatbelt so that the lap belt is resting on the top of your hip bones (or where they’d be if you could see them) and so the sash runs from shoulder to hip and doesn’t press against your neck when you lean forwards.  This is a bit of a nuisance for female drivers with bigger boobs, as the sash part of the seat belt is continually sliding up to the throat area.  The right bra helps – something that separates the girls so you can get the sash between them rather than a hoist-me-high cleavage enhancer if possible.  (Yes, I’m the wowser who says that it’s best not to drive in tight clothes that enhance your cleavage and stiletto heels – change when you get to the party!)  It’s another story again if you’re pregnant – but that’s worth a whole post of its own.

Now, are you sitting comfortably?  Good – then you can begin.

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