John Parker: Getting to grips with the best hand position at the wheel

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The traditional 10 and two position could lead to airbag injuries. Photo / Getty Images
The traditional 10 and two position could lead to airbag injuries. Photo / Getty Images

As the NZ Transport Agency has repeatedly said over the Christmas and New Year period, anything we can do to make our roads safer is important.

We all know about good driving practices such as observing the speed and drinking limits, about braking before the corner rather than when rounding it, about indicating when changing lanes, and about keeping at least two seconds away from the vehicle preceding us.

But what's the safest place for our hands on the steering-wheel? That's a topic largely absent from the headlines and not often discussed.

In the interests of road safety, I decided to raise the topic at a recent dinner party for seven. If we regard the steering-wheel as a clock face, I gently suggested to the guests, then eight and four or nine and three are the best positions for the hands.

Never again will I mention the matter at a similar occasion. The table erupted like a nest of disturbed hornets.

The two men and two of the women were adamant for 10 and two. "It's what I was taught at driving-school 30 years ago," said one. "And that's good enough for me."

The third woman argued for 11 and one, with the wrists rather than the hands. "It's relaxing for my arms," she said defiantly.

Woman number four confessed to an astonishing one and two, demonstrating the position on her dinner plate. She glared at my raised eyebrows.

I realised I was treading on sacred ground. Where drivers located their hands - or wrists - on the steering-wheel was a matter for defence rather than debate.

Obviously they hadn't thought the subject through.

I pointed out that eight and four or nine and three provided much more working room for the hands on a tight turn or when coping with the sudden and unexpected.

And that the bottom hand (left if turning left and right if turning right) can more easily sit at six in order to stabilise the wheel as it runs through the other hand if sharp action is needed.

And of course we now have to take airbags into account. As the Transport Agency mentions, the traditional 10 and two position could result in arm and face injuries if the steering-wheel airbag went off - hence the need for a lower hand position.

I also noted that our leading female rally driver, Emma Gilmour, favoured nine and three. Who were we to argue against the pro?

And I suggested, as my guests waited for the arrival of my wife's delicious apple crumble, that they consider the shape of their steering-wheel the next time they sit in their cars. Whether it's Toyota, Ford or Audi, the spokes are obviously fashioned to guide the hands somewhat around the middle, with the thumbs on top of the spoke and the fingers below.

I sat back for applause and a helping of the apple crumble. Neither arrived. But my guests' hand positions paled into comparative insignificance compared to some of the driving positions I've seen from the lofty vantage point of the public bus. And none was in the drivers' manual.

How about 11 to mobile, or three to iPod? Or six to fag and coffee? Or nine to razor? Or how about the young man whose favoured driving position in his blue Subaru WRX seemed to be five on the wheel with his right hand while his left engaged in amorous exploration of his front-seat passenger?

Maybe guys like that could revert to those steering-wheel knobs sported by US cars in the 50s, when power steering was a luxury rather than the norm.

Wikipedia says they were sometimes known as necker knobs, because they enabled the driver to steer with one hand and canoodle with the other. A compliant passenger and the bench seat greatly assisted the process.

But they were also known as suicide knobs. One hand on the wheel - or knob - was dangerous.

It reminds me of a story about a Hollywood film producer who liked to play a particular practical joke on unsuspecting passengers he was taking for a joy-ride.

Having rigged up his Caddy so the steering-wheel could be easily removed, he'd engineer a few near misses, while complaining of sudden illness.

Inevitably his companion in the front seat would soon utter the words the director was waiting for. "Can I take the wheel?"

Whereupon it was immediately detached and handed over. It took a few seconds and a couple of heart attacks before the passenger twigged that the steering column had been fitted with steering controls worked by the knees.

I'm still driving at between nine and three and eight and four. What are you steering at?

John Parker is an Auckland freelance writer.

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