No Pain behind the Wheel! The Importance of Driver Ergonomics

If you drive for work a lot, does your back hurt? Feel like you’ve aged ten years just getting out of your vehicle? Cranky and fatigued? Guess what—your driving ergonomics could use improvement.

What Is Ergonomics and Why Is It Important?

Ergonomics is the science of designing and arranging the things we use so we can interact with them more efficiently, safely, and productively. Good ergonomics is all about reducing injury and staying healthy, comfortable, and safe.

As we all know by now, sitting for long periods is really hard on our bodies. And doing that in a vehicle is no exception. We’ve all felt the results after long trips and commutes—stiff neck, sore shoulders, lower back and butt pain, hip twinges, and more. Left unaddressed, this can lead to not only chronic injury and pain but also irritability and fatigue, which affects mood, judgment, and alertness behind the wheel. 

Proper driver ergonomics means aligning and supporting your back, neck, shoulders, arms, hips, buttocks, and legs while also maintaining good visibility and a posture that enables you to operate the vehicle safely and comfortably with maximum control. Thus, good ergonomics also helps you be a safer driver.

But driving a car isn’t like sitting in a chair at a desk, because you must constantly move your head, arms, legs, and feet to look around and operate the steering wheel, pedals, and sometimes a gear shifter. Extending and holding your arms and legs this way places extra strain on your joints and muscles. Your body also continually absorbs vibrations from the road, sometimes twisting sideways as you go over bumps or make turns. No wonder you get aches and pains!

How to Adjust Your Vehicle for Good Driver Ergonomics

The best way to make sure your vehicle is literally a good fit for you is when you’re shopping for one. The more options available to adjust the seat, the more likely you’ll find a comfortable sitting position. But whether you’re purchasing a vehicle or adjusting a current one, here are some step-by-step tips, best performed in this sequence:

  • Visibility: Seeing properly is crucial to driving safely. Start by making sure you’re sitting high enough to clearly see over the dashboard and top of the steering wheel, as well as your mirrors, but not so high that your head touches the ceiling. Then sit up as straight and tall as possible with your shoulder blades pressed against the back of the seat. Immediately adjust your mirrors; if you look in your rearview mirror later and see the car’s ceiling rather than directly out the back window, then you’ll know you’re slouching.

  • Leg position: Position your seat forward enough so you can comfortably reach the pedals while keeping your knees bent a bit. You should be able to depress the brake and clutch pedals to the floor without lifting your back off the seat or locking your knees. Knees should not bump up against the bottom of the dashboard or steering column, and ideally, there should be 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) of clearance between the front edge of the seat and the back of your knees. The seat should also fully support your thighs.

  • Arm position: Next, adjust the seat forward or backward just until you can fully extend your arms in front of you and drape your wrists over the steering wheel. This allows you to hold the steering wheel with your elbows bent at your sides; your arms should never be fully extended, locked, or above your shoulders. Most cars have adjustable steering wheels that allow them to telescope in and out or be raised and lowered. Also, make sure the steering wheel doesn’t obstruct any vital parts of the dashboard.

  • Steering position: Grasp the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock position (or 10 and 2 o’clock) for maximum comfort and control (many wheels have little nubs for resting your thumbs). This keeps your shoulders relaxed and your hands and arms safely out of harm’s way in case the airbag goes off. Don’t hold the steering wheel any higher than 10 and 2 for extended periods, or you could develop tendinitis and other shoulder issues. Remember to keep your grip on the steering wheel relaxed, with just enough pressure to maintain good control; this reduces neck and shoulder tension. And don’t forget to change hand positions often!

  • Airbags: Try to sit no closer than 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) from the steering wheel; this minimizes potential injury from an airbag during a crash. (Needless to say, you should always wear your seatbelt too!)

  • Seats: Next, adjust the lumbar support so that the seat fits snugly against your lower back, or use a lumbar cushion. The whole length of your back should feel fully supported by the seat. If you can, adjust the front part of your seat so your knees are slightly lower than your hips; this will relieve stress on your hips and buttocks. (Note that seats with generous side bolsters can hold you more securely in place without letting your back and torso sag.) If your current seat is too deep and flat where your butt rests, you can fill in the hollow with a small cushion. If you have sciatica or neck pain, tightly roll a small towel and tuck it against your lower back or nestle it at the base of the neck.

  • Seatbelts: Next, sit up straight and tall, buckle your seatbelt, then tighten it across your chest and lap. The diagonal part of the belt should securely rest on the middle of your collarbone and not rub against your neck or fall off your shoulder. Even better is if its height can be adjusted up and down by an anchor on the B-pillar (located by the back of the driver door). The lap belt should stretch over your pelvic region (pregnant women should place it beneath their abdomen and over their thighs).

  • Head restraints: This crucial part of driver safety is often overlooked but it makes a huge difference in preventing whiplash injuries in a serious crash. The top of the headrest should come just above or even with the top of your head; it is far less effective if positioned any lower. Also, make sure that it is not set so far forward that it strains your neck, and that it locks securely in place.

  • Mirror position: After all these adjustments, don’t forget to sit up straight and tall and reset your mirrors once more!

What Else You Can Do?

Good driver ergonomics don’t just end with adjusting the car—it’s also what you do (and don’t do) when you’re driving.

  • Pay attention to how you sit. It’s all too easy for us to start literally slumping into bad posture habits. Aches and pains are often good reminders to sit up straight and shift position. Also, leaning or slouching in one direction (especially toward a door or an armrest) can lead us to almost unconsciously steering in that direction.

  • Avoid leaning your legs into a door or console for long periods. This “rolls” the knees outward, leading to muscle tightness in the buttocks, hip pain, and sometimes nerve tingling down the legs.

  • Remove bulky objects, like wallets, from your back pockets. This keeps your hips from being unbalanced and compressing the sciatic nerve.

  • On long trips, it’s important to keep moving in big and small ways.

    • Take regular breaks and get out to stretch and walk every hour.

    • While you’re driving, periodically roll your shoulders, flex your shoulder blades backward, twist your torso, turn your head, rotate your ankles, and do other micromovements to stretch your muscles, change your posture, and keep from getting too stiff.

    • If it’s safe to do so, use your cruise control judiciously and take this opportunity to rest your legs and change their positions.

    • Most cars have an inclined spot on the floor on the driver’s side called a “dead pedal.” This comes in handy to rest your foot, and you can also use it to brace yourself when you want to shift your position slightly in your seat (assuming it is safe to do so, of course).

  • What you wear can make a difference. Avoid wearing overly restrictive, binding, or bulky clothing. It’s especially important to remove puffy jackets before getting in the vehicle; they trap too much air between your body and a seatbelt, which can lead to the belt not tightening properly against your torso in a crash and increasing your chance for whiplash injuries. 

  • Get in and out the right way. Doing this in a hurry, especially when your body is already stiff after a long drive, can cause harm. When getting in, take it slowly. Minimize twisting by sitting down in the seat with your two feet on the ground first, then swiveling in, holding on to the steering wheel for stability. When you’re ready to get out, reverse these motions.

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