Two aspects of safety at the wheel are covered in this article. First, it is important to adopt the right driving position and to make sure that the seat is positioned correctly in relation to steering wheel and pedals. Second, a car's safety features — items like mirrors, safety belts and head restraints — need to be used properly.
One of the basic requirements of safe driving is to sit at the wheel properly. If your driving position is wrong, you reduce the degree of control you have over your vehicle and driving becomes unnecessarily tiring. It will also reveal to a trained observer your inadequacies as a driver. Many drivers sit either too close to or too far from the wheel, with the former the more common mistake. Others are simply too casual in their approach.
Sitting too close to the wheel usually suggests that a driver lacks confidence in his ability to handle the car, although poor eyesight is another reason. A driver may not be aware of any defect in his eyesight because deterioration generally creeps up gradually, and he compensates for it unconsciously by placing himself as close as possible to the windscreen. Regardless of the reason, sitting too close to the wheel is tiring and restricts a driver's control of the steering.
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On the other hand, you can make the mistake of being too relaxed. It may feel comfortable to hold the steering wheel low down only with the right hand, with elbow resting on the door-pull or window-sill, but control in an emergency is severely impaired. One-handed steering — perhaps with the hand casually holding a spoke of the wheel — points to over-confidence, almost to the point of boredom, or laziness. The driver of a car with power steering needs to be especially aware of developing lazy habits. Just because it is possible to steer with the little finger doesn't mean that it is safe to do so; again, it is impossible, with such minimal control, to deal efficiently with a sudden avoidance manoeuvre, and your concentration can lapse if you become too relaxed.
The 'boy racer' who seeks to emulate his racing driver heroes by reclining in the cockpit of his car, arms outstretched to a tiny steering wheel, is also at fault. A would-be racer who thinks a laid back position is suitable for his modest saloon can learn, to his cost, that procedures suitable for a racing circuit are to be avoided on the road.
A racing driver's straight-arm position is dictated by lack of space in a narrow cockpit, by sensitive steering which requires just a flick of the wrists to change direction, by his small steering wheel and by the aerodynamic logic of lying well back in a low-slung car. This style of driving is not only irrelevant on the road, but also reduces the driver's control and is as tiring as sitting hunched over the wheel.
So, with the wrong driving positions dealt with, we can turn our attention to the right one. It should allow your hands to sit naturally at either a 'ten-to-two' or 'quarter-to-three' position on the steering wheel while keeping your arms bent at the elbow at an angle of between 90 and 120 degrees. Your legs need to be positioned comfortably in relation to the pedals: they should not be splayed out either side of the steering wheel, nor should you sit so far away that you have to stretch to press the clutch pedal to the floor.
Although people come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and proportions, most cars these days have enough seat travel and backrest rake adjustment to enable the majority of drivers to find a good position. If you are unusually tall or short, it goes without saying that you should check whether you can find a comfortable driving position before choosing which car to buy. Once your driving position is right, you will find that the car becomes easier, less wearing and more pleasurable to drive, all of which contribute to safety at the wheel.
As your link with all the outside world which lies behind your peripheral vision, mirrors are vitally important. A good interior mirror giving a broad field of vision, preferably right up to the blind spots formed by the rear quarter panels between the rear screen and rear side windows, is essential so that you have a clear view of what is happening behind. Car design has progressed sufficiently for most modern cars to have good interior mirrors, but if your vehicle has an inadequate mirror it would be wise to buy, from an accessory shop, a larger mirror which can be attached to the front of the standard one. Although convex glass provides a wider field of vision, a larger area of plain glass is preferable because a distorted image gives a false impression of distance.
If the interior mirror vibrates, as many do, find some means of bracing it gently against the windscreen or roof panel; the distance of a fuzzy image of a car is very difficult to judge. Most modern cars are also equipped with a handy anti-dazzle adjustment which is useful in eliminating the distraction caused at night by a following vehicle on main beam. It is worth remembering, though, that using this facility can also alter your perception of distance (it can make headlights seem further away at a glance), so make sure that you adjust the mirror back to its normal position when the dazzling lights have gone.
In recent years it has become almost universal practice for manufacturers to fit exterior mirrors at the front of the doors, rather than in their traditional position out on the car's wings. While a few cars demand rather too much head movement and refocusing of the eyes, properly adjusted door mirrors generally complete the view which is not visible in the interior mirror, and are particularly valuable on dual carriageways and motorways. Cars of more basic specification may have only one mirror on the driver's side, or in a few cases no exterior mirror at all, so it is worth considering fitting one of the many types available on the market.
Since door mirrors are larger than the old-fashioned wing mirrors, they are more vulnerable to being knocked out of adjustment by pedestrians, or even by a passing car in a narrow street. Although a driver can adjust the door mirror by reaching out of the window while on the move, or by twiddling the interior lever or electric control knob, it is good practice always to check the mirrors before driving off. It is stupid to try to alter the position of a near-side mirror by leaning over to manipulate the interior lever while driving along.
The first thing to be said about safety belts is that their use by front seat occupants is compulsory. Apart from special cases exempt from this law (individuals excused on medical grounds or drivers engaged in local deliveries in a vehicle designed for this purpose), the only occasion when you are legally allowed to unfasten your safety belt while driving is when carrying out a manoeuvre which includes reversing.
The majority of new cars are fitted with inertia-reel belts, but many older cars have static belts. Inertia-reel belts remain slack in normal driving so that the user is free to lean forward, perhaps to reach awkwardly placed controls, but they lock when the inertia of the car changes with a sudden application of the brakes. Although people used to be sceptical about their operation, they have proved virtually fail-safe as long as the self-locking device remains in perfect working order. Make sure, though, that nothing on the floor, such as an umbrella, can slide across and jam the reel if it is exposed. It is wise every now and then to check that the webbing has not frayed against the edge of the reel. If your car has static belts, wear them tightly so that they can serve their purpose in the event of an accident. If you carry several different front-seat passengers, do not allow them to neglect to tighten the belt just because it seems difficult.
All new cars must now be fitted with rear seat belts, which usually take the form of proper three-point harnesses for two passengers and a lap strap for an occasional third passenger in the middle. Their use is not yet compulsory but is certainly advisable: an unrestrained rear passenger becomes a dangerous moving object in the event of an accident.
Young children, usually those under 10, are too small to wear adult belts properly, and should be protected by a child safety seat approved by the British Standards Institution. There are many varieties on the market, including clever two-stage ones suitable from birth to four years of age. Most seats come with a miniature version of an adult four-point harness which no child can wriggle out of.
Other safety equipment
Head restraints, often designed as an integral part of the seat, help to prevent serious whiplash injuries to the upper vertebrae caused by the head snapping back if a vehicle crashes into the back of your car. If a head restraint is of suitable design it can also serve as a head rest for a weary passenger; as a driver, however, you should not be tempted to rest your head if you are tired — it is far safer to take a break from the wheel.
Basic safety equipment in your car should include a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher, which should be securely attached to the car, perhaps under a front seat. Choose a good brand with an adequate capacity of the BCF chemical capable of dealing with both petrol and electrical fires.
Regular checks should be carried out on tyre pressure and condition, lights, brakes, steering, windscreen wipers and washers, as well as other safety-related items listed in your car's instruction manual.
Before leaving the subject of safety at the wheel, a few words are necessary about the use of car telephones. Most of us have seen for ourselves examples of the potential danger which exists when a driver holds a car telephone handset while his vehicle is moving. He may vary his speed unnecessarily, react late to hazards or drift from side to side in the road; all in all, as well as being illegal this is a recipe for disaster. The Highway Code states the rules very clearly: do not use a hand-held microphone or telephone handset while your car is moving, except in an emergency. If you do wish to have a telephone fitted to your car, insist on a hands-free installation; even then, use the telephone only when it would not distract your attention from the road. Even with a hands-free telephone, it is best to park the car safely before answering or making a call. While all this suggests that telephones and cars should not go together, there is one very valuable benefit in being able to make calls from your car. If congestion makes you late for an important appointment, you can remove any stress and worry, which can affect your standard of driving, by making a call to explain your delay.
- Adopt the correct driving position, with hands on the steering wheel at 'ten-to-two' or 'quarter-to-three'. Position the seat to give a comfortable posture; do not sit hunched over the wheel or too far from it.
- Keep interior and exterior mirrors properly adjusted to give a complete field of vision.
- Always wear a safety belt, even when travelling in the back of a car with rear belts fitted. Static belts should be worn tightly.