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How to steer a car

Practical Motoring logo Practical Motoring 27-04-2015 Robert Pepper
2015 Holden Commodore SSV review © Provided by Practical Motoring 2015 Holden Commodore SSV review
A mark of praise  in motorsport is to be known as a "good steerer". Not braker, or accelerator. Kind of underlines how important steering is. So here's some steering tips (oh, and, yes, the bloke in our main pic is holding the steering wheel wrong...) :

  • Look well ahead - you can get everything else right, and if you aren't looking well down the road your steering will not be accurate or precise. Same principle as riding a bike, surfing, skiing;
  • Grip - firm, but not white knuckle. The purpose of the steering well is obviously for you to steer the car, but less obviously for the car to communicate to you how well it is gripping ad turning. Those important messages will be masked with a death grip, and not felt with an overly light touch;
  • Only steer when moving - don't spin the steering wheel then stationary, it'll just place uncessary stress on the power steering and perhaps leave unwanted tyre marks;
  • Adjust - modern cars with electrically assisted steering often have two or more settings. Choose the one best for you, there's really no further advice as it is very much dependent on the vehicle and driver, but a change can improve things. OK, that's the non-contentious ones out of the way. Let's now dive into dogma and deal with the big two steering debates:

Hand position

Imagine a steering wheel is a clock. Top of the wheel is 12, bottom 6, left and right are 9 and 3. The correct position for your hands is 9-3 on a modern (less than 20 years old) car. You may have been taught 10-2, but that's wrong.

The reason 10-2 existed is historical. Back in the day cars had giant steering wheels, as there was no power steering. Take a look at this:

There's no way you could get your hands around that wheel at 9-3, so 10-2 was the logical way to go for most driving, with 9-3 available should you need extra leverage. Steering wheels also weren't adjustable back in those days, and the seats were pretty limited too, so being able to grip the wheel in a variety of places made sense.

Now let's look at today's cars. We have power-assisted steering, so no need for lots of physical strength which means steering wheels are much smaller. Wheels are now adjustable for tilt (up and down) and very often reach (forwards and backwards). Seats can be adjusted forwards and backwards, and the seatback tilted as a minimum.  There's often also a variety of other adjustments.

The upshot is that the driver can be placed in exactly the right position relative to the wheel to grip it at 9-3.  But why not 10-2?

The answer is simple - leverage and safety. Try driving a car with your hands together at the top of the wheel, the 11-1 position. It would not be easy. The reason is because your hands are close together - you lack leverage and feel. So you should move your hands further apart, and the further apart they are the better. Nine to three is obviously further apart than 10-2, so it's better for feeling what the car is doing, and turning the wheel.

Obviously there is a limit to this theory, as a one-metre diameter steering wheel is simply too wide to be gripped at 9-3, but your small, modern steering wheel is designed to be gripped at 9-3 so the diameter is correct for adults.  There are exceptions, for example the Land Rover Defender has a big wheel that's not adjustable, so you kind of have to for for 10-2.  But they're exceptions, not the norm.

Another important reason is centring the rotational action. Draw a line between your hands at 9-3.  Notice how it crosses the centre of the steering wheel, the point of rotation?  That means your leverage is consistent as you turn the wheel, it's as hard to pull down on the wheel as push up, the two forces balance.  

Now consider 10-2.  Here the line between the hands doesn't cross the steering wheel centre, so you have an unbalanced force which you need to counter with your upper body muscles, both hands are trying to pull down. This is not good for control, or for fatigue.

Finally, safety. Modern steering wheels have airbags, and your hands need to be at 9-3 in order to be out of the way when they go off.

So there you go, 10-2 is dead. You can tell your driving instructor they're wrong!

Next up we'll cover the other big debate, methods of steering, because the thinking there is also out of date.

Thanks to drivinginstructorblog.com for the steering wheel/clock image.


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