How to get the best car driving position

How to get the correct driving position

This might sound like something a little too simple but getting the correct car driving position is vital. Here’s how to work out the best driving position for you.

Position, position, position. It’s an adage as true in real estate as it is behind the wheel of your car. But what is the right driving position for me? Should I have the steering wheel nice and close? Do I need to see the end of the bonnet when driving? And does it really matter that much.

We take an in-depth look at some common misconceptions about setting your seat, steering column and mirrors to help you get a safe, and comfortable driving position. And this is as important for a newbie driver to someone who’s been driving for years.

When you next jump behind the wheel of your car, take a few moments to familiarise yourself with the range of controls for your seat, steering column and mirrors. Depending on your car these may be as simple as fore-aft and recline adjustment for the seat, and an up-down tilting range for the steering column. Or it may be even more complex, like a massage function which does nothing to help your driving other than just feel weird.

Irrespective of how many adjustments your car might offer, there are a few fundamentals that can make a lot of difference to your outward vision, your ability to safely operate your car’s primary controls, and your comfort. Let’s get started.

Seat fore-aft adjustment

Regardless of how fancy your car might be, it will absolutely have the ability to ‘slide’ the seat fore and aft. Most people think you should pull the seat as close to the steering wheel as you feel comfortable. But realistically this is setting you up for an uncomfortable drive that’s potentially unsafe. Huh?

Yep, if you’re sitting too close to the steering wheel and become involved in a collision then you’ll wear the full force of the airbag deployment too early in its inflation. Meaning you’re copping the inflation rather than the cushion. Moving on.

Yep, the reasons for getting your seat right centre around cramping, proper pedal operation, and the fact that airbags deploy with a lot of force. In short, you need to sit close enough that you can operate the pedals in their full range, while sitting far enough back that the airbag can operate the way it’s designed to.

Start by pushing your bottom back in the seat so that your back is fully supported by the back-rest, then slide your seat all the way back. Next, fully extend your left leg so that your toes can point upward comfortably. Now, slide the seat forward until your foot is flat on the foot rest, or in manual models so that the clutch is fully depressed.

There you go. It feels right, doesn’t it? You’ll also notice that your right foot is comfortable in its relation to the throttle pedal, and able to quickly move to the brake pedal without lifting your leg too high.

If you’d like to get technical about it, a 10-15 degree fold in your left leg should translate to your right leg operating the pedals through their correct range of motion. That’s the way the pedal box is designed.

Seat height adjustment

If you’re vertically-challenged like me, you’ll probably want to have the seat nice and high so that you can see the end of the bonnet. It sounds rational. But in fact, it’s completely wrong.

The reasons for this include the fact that additional pressure is placed on the thigh when operating the pedals, that your arms relate to the steering wheel incorrectly, and that your ability to see the instrument panel though/beneath the steering wheel rim is often impaired. Bad, huh?

Okay, so let’s get something straight: you don’t need to see the end of your bonnet. Not even when you’re driving off-road although in some situations we’ll concede that being able to see the bonnet edges/corners can be helpful.

Hop out of the car. Close the door. Now pace from the driver’s seat to your front bumper and count the steps. Got it? That’s how close the front on the car is from you. It’s an easy reference that will have you stopping a safe distance from the car in front – and in just a moment, we’ll present you with another one that makes things even safer.

Okay, jump back in the driver’s seat. Now I want you to lower the seat as far as it will go. How do you feel? Is it too low? Can you see out the windows? That’s the big ticket here: outward visibility. As long as you can see safely out the front and side glass, your seat is in the right position.

So, let’s build the seat height up gradually taking careful note of when you can safely see out the front and side windows, then, readjust your seats fore-aft movement a click if you need to.

Seat recline adjustment

If you’ve made it this far, well done. You’re probably already feeling like you’re set to go for a drive. But we’re only just getting started. Trust us when we say that getting your driving position right will make the world of difference to your comfort and confidence behind the wheel. Let’s move on to the next step.

Your seat’s back-rest is there to protect you in the event of an accident as much as it is to provide you with a place to sit. Sit too upright and you’ll likely have your face to close to the steering wheel and windscreen A-pillars.

Airbags deploy from both of these positions, and they’re designed to deploy to a distance where most drivers would sit. You want to be in that position, right?

Now that doesn’t mean you should wind the seat all the way back. There’s a perfect compromise here and in a few steps we’ll help you find it.

Start by placing the back-rest vertically and set yourself behind the seat. Don’t worry about the steering wheel yet, that will come later. Next, adjust the recline of the seat backwards bit by bit. What you’re aiming for is to have your shoulders in contact with the seat without your head touching the head-restraint (incorrectly called the ‘head-rest’, more on that soon).

If you’ve got the above three steps right, you should feel wonderfully supported by now, and like you could sit at the wheel for hours. But let’s take a look at the head-restraint before we move on.

Head-restraint adjustment

Notice we call it the ‘head-restraint’ and not the ‘head-rest’. The head-restraint is there to ‘catch’ your head in the event of a collision with the aim of minimising whiplash. If your seat is correctly adjusted, the head-restraint will serve its purpose – just as the other adjustments we’ve mentioned here allow your seatbelts and airbags to action in the way they were designed.

But there are other reasons you shouldn’t be ‘resting’ your head while driving. Your head is supported by your neck and your neck needs to be able to allow your head to comfortably turn from side to side. You need to do this to check your blind spots, your mirrors, and what’s coming at you from either side as you approach an intersection.

Besides that, having your head resting on the head-restraint transfers vibration and bumps through to your head which can lead to your vision blurring and even a headache.

Let’s start by moving the head-restraint as low as it can go – and if the design allows, tilted as far back as it can. Now, bring the head-restraint up click by click until the top of the head-restraint is level with the top of your ears. If the head-restraint tilts back and forth, and with your shoulders against your seat’s back-rest, bring it forward until your head and neck, and the forward surface of the head-restraint and separated by approximately 10-15 degrees.

And that should do it. Your seat’s primary range of motion is now perfectly set to have you in the right position for driving. You’ll relate to the pedals and the steering wheel more confidently, be able to use your mirrors more thoroughly, and feel more supported and comfortable on every drive. Right, on to the steering wheel…

Steering column adjustment

In most modern cars the steering column can be adjusted for tilt (up and down movement) and reach (in and out movement). If your car can only perform one of these, then simply disregard the other.

With your bottom all the way back in the seat and your seating position set as we just mentioned, release the steering column latch and get a feel for the range of motion your steering column offers.

Once you’re sitting properly in your seat, with your shoulders on the back-rest, pull the wheel up and toward you so that the top of the steering wheel rim is in line with your shoulders. If you can’t figure that out, you can also glance down to look at your instrument panel beneath the top of the steering wheel rim. If the ‘tilt’ of the steering wheel is correct, you should be able to see the top of your instrument panel under the steering wheel rim.

Once that feels right, it’s time to adjust the ‘reach’ of the steering column. Again with your shoulders on the back-rest, pull the wheel toward you so that with your arms outreached your wrists fall across the top of the steering wheel rim. Once both the tilt and reach ranges meet the guidelines above, secure the latch firmly back in place.

What you’ll notice now is that with your arms at 9 and 3 on the wheel you can turn the wheel through 180 degrees without taking your hands off the steering wheel rim. Your hands will also be free of the airbag should it deploy, and you’ll be able to see all of the instrument panel through the gap between the top of the steering wheel rim and centre.

You’ll also notice that your elbows form a nice, 35-40 degree angle by your side, and that your hands are below the level of your heart when in the 9 and 3 position. This is important for fatigue reasons in that your heart doesn’t have to pump so hard to force blood ‘up’ and into your hands.

Mirror adjustment

Look at you go! You’ve made it all the way to mirror adjustment and you’re not even bored. In fact, if you’re anything like me the first time I learnt all this information, you’ll already feel like you have so much better control over your car’s functions and can see out of the windows better than ever. And if you’re planning on taking your car to the track then this ‘basic skills’ stuff will give you much better car control.

There’s one last vital step, however, and that’s adjusting your mirrors. Like the seat and steering wheel your mirrors are the kind of thing you can ‘set and forget’. Or if your car has a driver position memory function, can be saved for recall the next time you hop behind the wheel.

Let’s start with the centre or rear-view mirror. Grab the mirror by its frame and tilt it up/down and left/right until the outline of the mirror traces the frame of your car’s rear window. Isn’t it amazing how it lines up perfectly? That’s because the shape of the rear-view mirror and the rear window of your car are shaped to, err, mirror each other identically.

The reason for this is pretty simple – it allows the driver as much vision as possible through the rear window with a minimum of blind spots. You’ll find this is as important for driving as it is for reversing. You’ll also find the relationship between your centre and side (or wing) mirrors is better than ever.

Next, and finally, let’s set your side mirrors. Whether it’s via an electric control or an old-school hand out the window, tilt your mirrors up/down and in/out so that the front door handle is just visible in the mirror’s lower inboard corner. This position gives you a solid reference point that helps you judge the position of your car when manoeuvring, and the speed of an approaching vehicle from the lane next to you.

You’ll probably also notice as you move your eyes from your centre mirror to your side mirrors that the massive blind spot you used to have is just about gone.

Now, remember that we said you should be able to swivel your head from side to side? If you try it quickly you’ll notice the blind spot between your mirrors is perfectly visible to your naked eye. Head-checking 101, folks. It’s a safe and simple way to keep yourself out of danger when changing lanes.

And finally…

If your seat has additional squab and bolster adjustable or lumbar support you should adjust these only after you’ve run through the primary setup above. Once you’ve got everything right you’ll be amazed at how much more confident and comfortable you feel behind the wheel, and just how much easier long trips seem to feel.

Before we go, though, remember earlier how we said we have one final tip for measuring yourself from the car in front? Well, it’s an oldie but a goodie.

As you come to a stop in traffic keep your eye on the car ahead’s rear wheels. See the point where they touch the ground? Now as you get closer keep your eye on this point. As you begin to come to a stop the car ahead’s wheels should be visible over the top of the bonnet, or the dashboard, depending on the height of your seat.

Bring your car to rest while you can still see the car in front of yours rear wheels touch the ground. It’s a safe distance to stop in traffic, and one that means you’re in less risk of hitting the car in front should someone rear-end you.

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