Next time you're driving in your car, take a look at the drivers - not the cars - traveling around you. Check out the position of their arms and hands in relation to the steering wheel.
Whether negotiating town traffic or traveling on a highway, we cringe every time we see a driver with his or her hands gripping the steering wheel at the 12 o'clock position, or with the left arm slung casually out the window, or with the right arm slung across the top of the passenger seat, or with (shudder) one wrist draped across the top of the steering wheel while the other hand cradles a cell phone or water bottle. You can steer a car with your wrist? Oh, please! Then there's the driver whose head is tilted back against the seat. Sleeping, perhaps?
Driving position - the proper placement of your hands on the steering wheel, and the position of your body in relation to the car's controls - is critical to how quickly and effectively you can handle your car in an emergency. It is also important in avoiding injury from a deployed airbag.
With your hands casually on (or worse, off) the steering wheel, you lose precious seconds needed to avoid unexpected traffic situations - objects in the road, children or pets running into the street, other cars. If you had a tire blowout at high speed, not only do you need to be able to react instantaneously, but you'll also need the strength of both arms to prevent the car from careening wildly out of control. Driving disasters happen in nanoseconds, and most of the time they can't be predicted. You owe it to yourself and those around you to be prepared at all times.
Before putting the key in the ignition, set your driver's seat and steering wheel properly. With your back firmly pushed back into the angle of the seat, move the seat forward or back until your left foot is comfortably positioned flat on the foot rest or floor mat. Now move the seat up or down. The seat height should be adjusted so that your eyes are even with a point midway up the windshield. Next, adjust the steering wheel up or down so that you can see the entire dial of the speedo
Finally, using the seat-back adjustment, move the seat back up or back until the steering-wheel rim is at least 14 inches from your chest, but only far enough back so that your elbows are comfortably bent.
The distance between you and the wheel is important because if you're too close and the airbag inflates, it will hit your chest before it is fully expanded, with a blow more than 10 times the force of a prizefighter's punch. If you're at least 14 inches from the wheel, the bag will expand fully before it hits you.
On the other hand, if you're too far away from the steering wheel, you don't have good leverage to turn the steering wheel easily. Make sure the wheel is not tilted too far upward - a deployed airbag should expand toward your chest, not your face.
Women in advanced stages of pregnancy may want to consider disabling the bag to avoid injury to you and your unborn passenger. (Your dealer can do this, and, yes, it is legal.)
While we're doing all these adjustments, don't forget your car mirrors. Adjust them so that your center mirror shows the entire rear window and your side mirrors are extended out so that their field of view barely overlaps your field of view in the central mirror.
Now for those hands - and positioning them on the steering wheel: Visualize that wheel as a clock, and put those hands at the 4 and 8 positions.
OK, we know this is probably not what you were taught in driver's education. The old 10 and 2 positions may have been fine before the invention of the airbag, but now they can be dangerous.
With your arms at 10 and 2, there's a good chance they will suffer rubbing burns from the bag's explosion. Or worse, the force can fling your right arm outward and into your passenger's face and slam your left arm through the window.
Hands at the 12 o'clock position? Both hands would be flung backward, bashing you - hard - in the head or forehead. Sounds scary, but remember that airbags do save lives and overall are a boon to automotive safety. They are not, however, without some occasional risks. Proper positioning in your car can help minimize those risks.
For all you drivers out there, especially those who love the 12 o'clock high and hands-off driving positions, before you shift into gear and drive off, remember that this could be the day you come upon that chair in the middle of Highway 101, or your tire goes flat on Interstate 280, or that car in front of you stops too quickly for you to brake in time - so change your driving position accordingly.
Gary and Genie Anderson, Los Altos residents for more than 20 years, are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits MC Squared, the MINI magazine, and contributes articles and columns to a variety of other automobile magazines.