Where to put hands on the steering wheel?

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From the first day in driving school, this lesson is drilled into our heads: Firmly grip the steering wheel in the 10-2 position. Now, law enforcement agencies are training officers to place their hands lower on the steering wheel, and some drivers’ groups are changing position on hand position.

For more than a year at the San Jose, Calif., Police Department, the recommended hold has been 9-3. The American Automobile Association also prefers 9-3. For the California Highway Patrol, the position can be as low as 8-4.  “My daughter came back from driving class and said they were teaching her to hold the wheel at 10-2,” said Robert Sepulveda, a San Jose officer who has trained new cops in proper driving techniques. “I told her that’s not what we teach . . . that 10-2 is inappropriate.”

The 10-2 position is the traditional favorite because, in theory, a higher grip allows a driver to keep the car running smoothly without needing to jerk the wheel suddenly if he is cut off or there is a hazard in the road. But air bags are changing that equation.  During a collision, the bag will explode out at more than 100 mph, protecting the driver’s head and chest from slamming into the front of the vehicle. With the hands at 10-2 or higher on the wheel, a driver’s arms can get walloped or thrown back into his face if an air bag deploys.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes a neutral position on the grip, saying there is not enough evidence of arms or wrists being broken by exploding air bags to recommend 9-3 over 10-2 or anything else. However, the agency does say that the arms of drivers holding the steering wheel from the side are not as likely to be caught between their bodies and the air bag.

At this point, most position changing is happening in law enforcement. Although the California Department of Motor Vehicles says it has no preferred position, many local driving schools say the DMV tells them to teach motorists the 10-2 grip.  “It’s 10-2 according to their 2001 handbook,” said Ruth Zimmer, owner of Advantage Driving School in San Jose. “Of course, the DMV is always three years behind.”

Many drivers do not heed any of the recommended positions as they cruise down a freeway. Some prefer the 10-and-a-drink position or the 1 o’clock only hold. “I’m bad. I’m bad. I know that,” said Donnae Youngman, a legal assistant in Palo Alto, Calif., who usually rests her left arm on the window side while the right arm grips the bottom of the wheel.  “If something crops up on the road when I’m driving, I’ll go back to 10-2. But now they don’t know if that is right?” That’s right.

“I can help stir things up even further,” said Steve Schwab, the police chief in Morgan Hill, Calif., who recently sent his officers to an emergency vehicle operations course in Alameda County where the recommended position was 7-5.  “The reason is to ensure that if they crash and the air bag goes off, the driver’s arms are pushed down or out, not up,” the chief said. “But keep in mind that all this controversy about hand positions is targeted toward training drivers of emergency vehicles in high-risk situations.”

For the CHP, 10-2, 9-2 or 8-4 are all approved positions. The reason: “All vehicle steering wheels and air bags are not created equal,” said Pete Barra, public information officer for the CHP’s Bay Area division. “Not to mention the comfort level of the driver’s hand position.”

But Gordon Booth, owner of Drivetrain in Willow Glen, Calif., doesn’t go along with the idea that lower is better. “I don’t think there is one catch-all hand position,” he said. “If you are in fairly heavy traffic, I would disagree with anything less than 9-3. I much prefer 10-2 or even 11-1.’

Traffic cops say in recent years, another new position has gained considerable popularity. “Mostly, I see the left hand up on the wheel,” said San Jose officer Sepulveda, “and the other hand on a cell phone.”

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