How to steer a car – Part 1
Steering is one of the most important skills when driving. Pity most of us were not taught the right way to do it.
How to steer a car – the fundamentals
A MARK OF PRAISE in motorsport is to be known as a “good steerer,” not a good braker, or accelerator. That kind of underlines how important steering is. So here are some steering tips:
- Look well ahead – you can get everything else right, but if you aren’t looking well down the road your steering will not be accurate or precise. Same principle as riding a bike, surfing and skiing.
- Grip – you should hold the steering wheel firm, but not white knuckle tight. The purpose of the steering wheel is obviously for you to steer the car, but also for the car to communicate to you what is happening underneath. 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 when stationary, it’ll just place unecessary stress on the power steering and perhaps leave unwanted tyre marks (this is known as ‘dry steering’).
- Both hands on the wheel – with two hands on the wheel you will have the best control over the car, and be able to feel what the car’s doing. In the event of needing to control the car quickly, you will be using the steering wheel and pedals, not shifting gears, so there is no need to have your hand on the gearshift. Keep both hands on the wheel, and if they need to leave, the hands do their job and come straight back to the wheel.
- 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 vehicle and driver, but a change can improve things.
How to hold a steering wheel
Imagine a steering wheel is a clock. Top of the wheel is 12, bottom 6, left and right is 9 and 3.
The correct position for your hands is 9 and 3 on a modern (less than 20 years old) car. You may have been taught 10 and 2, but that’s wrong. The reason 10 and 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 and 3, so 10 and 2 was the logical way to go for most driving. 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 a variety of other adjustments available on some cars too.
The upshot is that the driver can be placed in exactly the right position relative to the wheel to grip it at 9 and 3.
But why not 10 and 2?
The answer is simple – leverage and safety. Try driving a car with your hands together at the top of the wheel – the 11 and 1 position. It would not be easy. The reason is that 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 further apart than 10 and 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 and 3, but your small, modern steering wheel is designed to be gripped at 9 and 3 so the diameter is correct for adults.
There are exceptions: for example, the previous-generation Land Rover Defender has a big wheel that’s not adjustable, so you usually have to use 10 and 2. Though these are the exceptions, not the norm.
Another important reason is centring the rotational action.
Draw a line between your hands at 9 and 3 and notice how it crosses the centre of the steering wheel – the point of rotation. That means your leverage is consistent and as you turn the wheel it is as hard to pull down on the wheel as push up; the two forces balance.
Now consider 10 and 2. The imaginary 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. Here’s an example of an oversteer recovery:
Finally, there is safety, because you have better control over the car. It is, however, a myth that your hands need to be at 9 and 3 in order to be out of the way of airbags when they go off.
So there you go, 10 and 2 is dead.
Next up, in Part 2, we cover the other big debate: methods of steering. The thinking there is also out of date.
Thanks to drivinginstructorblog.com for the steering wheel/clock image.