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Science Says This Is the Best Way to Grab Your Steering Wheel

© Tomasz Zajda / EyeEm   Where you grab the steering wheel could affect how difficult you find it to turn it, researchers have observed. Spoiler: It's not 10 and 2.

By Caroline Delbert, Popular Mechanics

  • Where you grab the steering wheel could affect how difficult you find it to turn it, researchers have observed.
  • The recommended neutral position at 9 and 3 distributes force evenly and is also safer for airbag deployment.
  • This study required subjective observations from just nine participants, so hopefully future research will confirm the results.

Researchers in Japan have conducted a very small, very specific study on how hand position on the steering wheel affects how our muscles work, which in turn distorts how hard we believe we have to work to turn the wheel. The study positioned nine men behind a specially designed partial steering wheel that looks more like an airplane’s steering yoke.

The researchers measured their muscle exertion at four set positions beginning with the wheel in a neutral position where the “crossbar” part is horizontal. They measured movements from 60°, 30°, -30°, and -60° starting positions. Drivers were only allowed to put one hand on the wheel. The accepted “best practice” for steering wheel position in the age of the airbag is at 3:00 and 9:00, which would be neutral position in this study.

Each driver held the yoke with their right hand (all subjects were right handed) and twisted the wheel while remembering the force it required to move the original neutral control position. That force was 2.0 Newton meters (Nm).

Subjects were asked if their experimental wheel felt harder or easier to turn. If they thought their experimental wheel required more force than the reference wheel, the researchers turned the force up by 0.2 Nm. If the subject thought their experimental wheel position required less force, researchers turned it down by 0.2 Nm. The total range of force fell between 1.1 and 2.9 Nm, and researchers repeated the test in each position 25 times twisting upward and 25 times twisting downward.

The goal of the study, per the press release, was to scrutinize how our preconceptions based on sensory data can influence how we operate a steering wheel:

“Arm position changes the way we use our muscles to perform tasks. An uncomfortable or strange position can make our sense of effort feel higher or lower, thus the object feels lighter or heavier than it actually is.”

Testing subjects with just their right arms in awkward positions on a partial steering wheel sounds both uncomfortable and strange. Most drivers either use two hands in the recommended symmetrical position, where the weight of their arms and the force of gravity average out because one arm is going up while the other is going down. Among the cool one-handed drivers, some rest their hand on the very top 12:00 position, while others rest it at 6:00. While 6:00 is considered safe, at 12:00 you risk having your own arm punch you in the face if your airbag deploys.

If researchers have found that we perceive steering in a distorted way when we begin at unusual positions on the wheel, the corresponding real-life situation might be when parallel parking or doing other maneuvers that require you to steer and then hold strange angles while you continue to position your car. It may also encourage us to be mindful when backing up or checking our mirrors to avoid obstacles, because this could disorient our normal sense of steering.

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