Driving Ergonomics


Have you thought about how much you drive?

There’s the day to day just getting to and from work, weekend excursions, family vacation, a day trip to the beach, or road tripping to a college football game several hours away. It adds up to lots of time in the car, which can be hard on the body.

Our bodies are designed to move, so being stuck in one position for several hours can cause strain that our bodies aren’t ready for. There are also strains associated with the physical act of driving. Those strains are increased with higher speeds and more aggressive cornering, but the principles apply to everyone.

This spring I was lucky enough to do a performance driving school at a road racing track. Yes, I was in my MINI, learning from a man who’s been racing cars since 1960 and was the stunt driver for the red Mini in the original 1969 version of the Italian Job. Phil Wicks can drive! In addition to being a thoroughly charming guy, and teaching me a lot about driving in general, he was able to give me some great pointers on safety and comfort while behind the wheel. His car brain and my physical therapy brain were a good combination. I hope you can benefit from the insight.

Seven Steps for Being Good To Your Body When Driving

  • Set your seat up properly. When sitting all the way back in the seat, if you extend your arm forward over the steering wheel, the steering wheel should hit at your wrist. If you’re too close, your air bag won’t be able to deploy properly, but if you’re too far away, you won’t have as much driving control, and you’ll put excess strain on your shoulders and neck.
  • You should be able to fully brake and fully depress the clutch and still have a little bit of bend in your knee. You may need to adjust the seat angle to get both your arms and legs in the correct position for your car.
  • Lumbar support. Now that you’re in the correct position, see if your low back is well supported, or if your seat puts you in a slightly slumped position. If you’re slumped, there will be a lot of strain on your low back. Many cars have adjustable lumbar supports, and most people can benefit from using that feature. If you don’t have adjustable lumbar support, though, you can still improvise. We have lumbar rolls that serve the same purpose that attach with an elastic strap around the seat–the half-round ones are perfect for use in cars! They fill in that little gap in the small of your back. In a pinch, you can roll up a towel and use that, but the springiness of the foam of a lumbar roll is really nice.
  • Stability. Most seats and seatbelts don’t provide much in the way of support side to side. Sports cars tend to have somewhat better support along the sides of the seat back and sometimes along the seat bottom, but there’s still a lot of opportunity for sliding around. That really forces us to use a lot more muscle control and can lead to driving fatigue. This tendency is exaggerated when zipping around curves in a spirited fashion, like I like to do in my MINI. If you’re luck enough to have adjustable side bolsters in your seat back, definitely take advantage of them. If you want to get some extra stability but aren’t interested in a full racing seat and harness, a nice product to try is a CG Lock (cg-lock.com) This device attaches to your existing seatbelt, but locks the lap belt portion to keep your hips from shifting around.
  • Hand position. Years ago, we were taught to drive with our hands at the 10:00 and 2:00 positions on the steering wheel, and we were taught to cross our arms when going around turns. Now that air bags are in all vehicles, the safest position is with the hands on the lower half of the steering wheel. For performance driving, the hands can be a little higher, and the best control is right at the cross spokes of the steering wheel. Even in performance driving, however, you still don’t want to let your arms cross as you turn, because you can be seriously injured if the air bag deploys with your arms in front of it.
  • Your vehicle. Once your body is in a good position, pay a little bit of attention to your vehicle itself. Worn suspension parts can transmit a lot of vibration through to the passengers, and our bodies simply aren’t suited well to resist vibration forces. Is your car pulling one way or the other? If so, an alignment will help decrease stress on your shoulders.
  • Take breaks! Don’t forget this simple thing. A quick stop can be a great chance to do some stretches and walk around a bit before you get going.

Ginger Ogren, MS, PT, OCS, a Virginia native, earned a bachelor of science in kinesiology from the College of William & Mary and a Master of Science in physical therapy from the Medical College of Virginia. She is an orthopedic clinical specialist and has served as adjunct faculty for the Kinesiology Department at the College of William & Mary. Ginger joined Tidewater Physical Therapy, Inc. in 1995 and is Clinical Director of the Norge location.