March 22, 2012 at 7:45 AM ET
If you're a conscientious motorist who still does everything the way your driver's-ed instructor told you to, you're doing it all wrong.
For decades, the standard instruction was that drivers should hold the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 positions, as envisioned on a clock. This, it turns out, is no longer the case. In fact, driving that way could cost you your arms or hands in particularly gruesome ways if your airbag deploys.
Instead AAA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and many driving instructors now say you should grip the wheel at 9 and 3 o'clock. A few go even further, suggesting 8 and 4 to avoid the airbag mechanism as much as possible, but what formal research has been published on the varieties of hand positions suggests that this may lessen your control of the car.
Safer cars make old-school ways dangerous
In its latest guidelines for effective steering, distributed by state and private driving instructors nationwide, the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association advises that "recommendations relative to hand position on the steering wheel have become more flexible."
As cars have become safer over the years, "the steering wheel and associated mechanisms (have) changed dramatically," it says, meaning the familiar driving maneuvers "needed to turn the wheel have all changed." Principal among the changes is the incorporation of airbag modules in the steering column, which are designed to deploy upward to protect your head and chest.
That means the higher up the wheel your hands are, the more likely they are to be directly over the plastic cover when it opens — that is, when superhot nitrogen gas flashes and inflates the bag at 150 to 250 mph.
Among the injuries the NHTSA reports from improper placement of the hands when an airbag deploys are amputations of fingers or entire hands, traumatic fractures and a particularly stomach-churning injury called "degloving," which — trust us — you definitely don't want to look up.
AAA says the bags can also slam your hands directly into your head, causing broken noses and concussions.
"If the bag is going to go, it's going to take my hand and put it into my face — either one of my hands," Bob Hendrickson, head of AAA's network of driving schools in central Indiana, told NBC station WTHR of Indianapolis.
Experts also say new research in ergonomics suggests that what's called "parallel position" makes for safer driving in general.
Parallel position "improves stability by lowering the body's center of gravity and reduces unintended and excessive steering wheel movement which is a primary cause of young driver fatalities," the Texas Department of Public Safety says in guidelines for new drivers (.pdf).
In plain English, that means "9 and 3," said Dallas police Sgt. Paul Hinton, who teaches law enforcement officers how to drive safely in emergencies like highway chases or when facing a wrong-way driver.
"That way I can go 180 degrees (one way), 180 degrees back the other way and then back to center," Hinton told NBC station KXAS of Dallas. "That's the way I'm going to be able to change lanes (safely)."
One other thing
You're also turning wrong. That ship captain's-style "hand over hand" thing is now out.
Instead, you're supposed to "push-pull" — that is, push the wheel up with one hand and pull it down with the other, without crossing over.
The reason is the same, State Farm's auto insurance division says in its guidelines for beginning drivers:
"Hand-over-hand maneuvers during turning should be avoided to prevent arms from being in front of a deploying airbag in the event of a crash. Serious injuries may result during such occurrences."
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