Rules of the Road

So we’ve turned the clocks back, but where should your hands go when you’re driving?

Drivers were taught to keep their hands at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel, but the addition of airbags makes “9 and 3” is now considered the safest position and one that gives the most control.
Drivers were taught to keep their hands at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel, but the addition of airbags makes “9 and 3” is now considered the safest position and one that gives the most control. The Bellingham Herald file

Question: I was taught to keep my hands at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel, but I’ve heard that if your car has airbags you should keep your hands at “8 and 4.” Is that right? It feels weird.

Answer: Allow me to split the difference and recommend “9 and 3.”

Back before airbags, “10 and 2” was the standard hand position on a steering wheel. But once car manufacturers started installing explosive devices in the steering wheels, we realized that our hand position needed to change.

At the risk of stating the obvious, steering grip position is generally described by visualizing the steering wheel like the face of a clock. Hand position corresponds to the numbers on the clock’s face.

There are two primary things to consider when gripping the steering wheel: control and safety (in the event of airbag deployment). The old-school “10 and 2” position favors control, while the “8 and 4” recommendation favors safety. If I had to choose between the two, I’d pick control; I’d rather have better control of a vehicle and avoid the crash than get less hurt in a crash because my hands are out of the way of the airbag. Fortunately we don’t have choose.

Let’s first consider control. The original question begins with the assumption that both hands are on the wheel.

Back before power steering, driving pretty much required two hands. Modern cars steer easily with just a finger, so are both hands still necessary? Yes, they are. The steering wheel is where you get most of the feedback from the road, and where you respond to that feedback. Steering with two hands results in smoother turns.

Race car drivers talk about how smooth steering makes you faster, but what they really mean is that they have more consistent tire grip, so they can drive closer to the limits of the traction of their tires. An abrupt or jerky steering input briefly upsets the balance of traction a car’s tires have on the road and can result in a loss of control.

If we all agree that we need two hands on the wheel, where do you put them to maximize control? Put them at “9 and 3.” With your hands opposite each other you’ll be able to do nearly all your driving without having to shift your hands on the wheel.

If you do need to shift your hand position, don’t use the hand-over-hand method. Instead, keep both hands on the wheel, gripping with one hand while letting the wheel slide through the other. Then switch your gripping and sliding hand before your hands cross the centerline of the wheel. This is commonly known as the push-pull method.

Putting your hands at “9 and 3” also gives you more control, because you can best apply your strength in that position. That’s also why the “8 and 4” position feels, as you said, weird. When your hands are low on the wheel you have less strength and control because of your natural body geometry.

Now for the safety part of steering wheel hand position: Really this is just keeping your body parts out of the path of the airbag. Earlier I discouraged hand-over-hand steering. That wasn’t just because two hands on the wheel gives you more control. It’s also because hand-over-hand steering puts your arms right between your airbag and your face.

No matter where you put your hands on the steering wheel, they’ll get pushed by the airbag if it deploys. What we’re concerned about is where they get pushed.

In the “10 and 2” position, the hands and arms get a more upward push, slamming the left arm into the windshield pillar or either arm into the driver’s face. This position also puts more impact on the wrists, causing an increased rate of “degloving,” a grisly injury you don’t want to look up.

At “9 and 3” your arms are pushed out to the sides, minimizing injury.

It’s also a good idea to put your thumbs on the wheel instead of wrapped around it to avoid the airbag breaking them.

Advocates of the “8 and 4” position make that recommendation entirely on the basis of safety, but it’s no safer than “9 and 3” and reduces driver control.

I should mention that my use of the word “push” is actually a major understatement. There is a “bomb” mounted in your steering wheel that deploys at around 100 to200 mph. You don’t want to get any of your limbs between your torso and your airbag.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.


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