Ergonomic driving guide: Are you sitting comfortably?

Ergonomic driving guide: Are you sitting comfortably?
Driving safely from A to B involves more than avoiding a road accident. The position of your seat and how you sit in it can also have a significant impact on your body.

Drivers of all ages can find themselves ‘kinked up’ or in pain as they get out of their car after a long journey. So what causes these sorts of problems and how can you avoid them?

Guide contents

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What are the most common driving injuries?

Many drivers report aches and pains from driving such as lower back pain, stiff shoulders and neck, cramp in the foot or leg, headache or eye strain. In 2016, around 30.8 million days of work were lost to musculoskeletal problems, according to government figures.

Prolonged exposing to driving has shown to be a risk factor for back pain, with the risk increasing for anyone who drives for more than 20 hours a week.

And it’s not just sitting in a fixed position that can cause problems. Getting in and out of the vehicle can be uncomfortable for around 9.7% of older people according to a study at Loughborough University.1

Reaching and pulling the boot door down to close is difficult for 12% of older females, while turning to adjust headrests and adjustable seatbelt fixings can also cause problems for some.

Other common causes of injury include:

  • Sitting for long periods
  • Sitting in the wrong position
  • Poor posture
  • Twisting or turning your body awkwardly
  • Lifting things into or out of the vehicle – including putting children into car seats and putting things in the boot
  • Reaching into the car's footwell or the rear of the vehicle

Symptoms of common driving injuries can range from the mild to the severe:

  • Pins and needles
  • Cramp
  • Stiffness
  • Aching shoulders or neck
  • Chronic back pain
  • Spinal problems or degeneration of the spinal discs

What is driving ergonomics and why does it matter?

Ergonomics is the study of people's efficiency in their working environment and the equipment they use. Vehicle designers use the same principles when designing car interiors, so that drivers can easily see and reach what they need to drive the vehicle while sitting comfortably.

But not everyone's the same shape or size, so designs are often a compromise of the options that suit the most people.

In the past, many cars were designed with male drivers in mind, meaning women – who tend to be shorter on average – were more likely to find discomfort. Newer cars now have far more options for adjustment, to make sure everyone can find their correct driving posture.

What’s the correct driving position?

We all think we know how to sit in a car, but it’s not as simple as you might think.

Below is a brief summary of advice from experts in driving ergonomics at Loughborough University and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

  1. Make sure your seat is high enough to give you good vision of the road while still allowing clearance above your head. Your hips should be at least as high as your knees.
  2. Move the seat until you can easily push down the pedals fully.
  3. If your seat is adjustable, make sure your thighs are supported without pressure around your knees.
  4. Check the angle of the back seat, if you recline too far you'll have to bend your neck too much to face forward. Then adjust the lumbar support where possible so it comfortably fills the arch of your back. This can really help with lower back pain.
  5. If your steering wheel is adjustable, make sure you can reach it easily and that it doesn't obstruct your view of anything vital on the dashboard.
  6. Adjust the head restraint2 so that it’s as high as the top of your head and as close to the rear of your head as possible to avoid whiplash injuries.
  7. Put on your seatbelt and make sure it is adjusted correctly3 so it is tight with the lap belt over the pelvic region and the diagonal strap over the shoulder, not the neck – adjusting the height of the fixing if possible. Pregnant women should place the lap belt flat on the thighs – beneath the abdomen.

Don't get into bad driving habits

It’s easy to start slumping, or get in the habit of driving with one arm out of the window or resting on the gearstick. Keep both hands on the steering wheel as much as possible, as this prevents one shoulder from having to work harder than the other, and the likelihood of twisting your spine.

If you get arm pain from driving, take note and see if you can better position your arms, relax your shoulders or adjust your seat to improve things. Your palms should be just lower than your shoulders.

How do I stay comfortable on long road trips?

If you’re going on a long road trip, make sure you’re fully prepared – as this will help reduce stress levels stop you tensing up.

If driving across Europe, think about any minor adjustments you might have to make due to driving on the right to ensure a good view in all mirrors and that luggage isn't obscuring your view or making you hunch up. Make sure you’re careful when loading and unloading your car, particularly after a long trip.

Position your satnav so it’s comfortably in a place that is easy to see without blocking your view of the road or making you twist your body awkwardly.  

Take frequent breaks, the Highway Code recommends a break of 15 minutes at least every two hours. Use the break to get out of the car and change your position, take a walk, do some stretches if you find that helps. If possible, share the driving responsibility.

What’s the most comfortable car to drive?

If you find driving is giving you aches and pains make sure the next car you buy is more suitable and doesn't give you the same problems.

While it’s true that expensive cars are more likely to give you a better ride, manufacturers have been working hard to improve the comfort further down the range, and some options that used to only be included in premium vehicles can now be found as standard.

Start with a bit of research to see if you can narrow down to cars that should suit you – for example, if you have problems getting in and out, a higher seat might prove helpful.

And it's not just sports cars that have a low extended leg position that can be hard on bad backs – you might need to look for a vehicle with a more upright, chair-like seat. Tall drivers might benefit from deeper seats or adjustable bottom cushions.

If you have real back problems choosing a model that offers lumbar support for the driving seat can be a real benefit. You may have to pay extra for this.

If you’re frequently sharing a car with other drivers you may find picking one with seat memory functions is a real bonus and saves time every time you set out.

If you have shoulder or neck problems on your left side, try to choose a car where reaching for the gear stick allows the arm to stay in a neutral position without stretching. You may also want to see if an automatic might help you.

Some of the cars with a reputation for comfort include:

Once you have narrowed down the type of car you think you want, take it out on a test drive – a long test drive. If you generally start to experience pain after say 15-20 minutes make sure your test drive is at least 30 minutes, ideally longer. You may want to warn the dealer in advance that you need to do this.

Check out for yourself exactly what can and can't be adjusted and whether that is likely to matter to you. It's worth also checking that the steering wheel and pedals are centrally located to the seat to make sure this won't place strain on you. Don't forget to open and close the boot to see how that feels, particularly if you are having to put something heavy in.

 

Did you know, you can get fined for moving out of the way of an ambulance?

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