Commentary: Putting Your Hands Where the Airbag Won't Hurt Them

2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited 10
Where do you put your hands on the steering wheel? Photo by Randy Stern

Um, what's with those thumbs on the steering wheel of the photo on the top of your page?

You may have noticed in the masthead photo of my hands-on-steering wheel placement. I've noticed this on a few photos. It disturbs me when I see this and look at what is considered proper driving technique.

We all admit that not everyone follows proper driving technique. This could be interpreted by how we actually drive to where we place your hands on the wheel. There are just silly, trite things that could be seen as trivial – because they work.

Steering wheel hand placement was taught two ways. For racing, it is preferable to have your hands at the "9-and-3" position – as seen on a clock. That way, your arms do the work in ensuring correct cornering through the chicanes and apexes of a track. However, so-called "regular" drivers are taught the "10-and-2" wheel position – as demonstrated in the photos you see on this site.

Where things get weird is the fact that my hands are large. Huge. Long fingers. They're not normal, folks!

By accident, my thumbs end up stretched beyond the 10-and-2 positions as some form of security measure. They seem to act as stabilizers for my large hands. I'm not sure why this is…or, how it came about. They just seem…silly.

Granted, no one has said anything about it. I seem to be the only one that noticed. Oh, silly me…

Now, we are told that the 10-and-2 steering wheel placement is considered dangerous. The key point involved the deploying of the driver-side airbag from the steering wheel. When the air bag is deployed, its trajectory is aimed straight out the steering wheel hub to wherever the center of the hub is facing. In theory, the air bag is supposed to deploy towards your face to protect it from going into the windshield or onto the instrument panel.

An air bag's deployment is rapid in actuation and has to no idea where other parts of the body may be in its way. Recent research shows that an air bag can affect the hands and arms as it deploys to cover much the driver's side as possible. When they are in the 10-and-2 position, our hands and arms are right in the air bag's trajectory and can cause injury.

The latest word from driving instructors, safety experts and the enthusiast world is that we should try the 9-and-3 position instead.

Actually, that is not exactly what is recommended. The suggested rule of thumb is 10 inches. Translated, it means keeping hands at least 10 inches from the leaning of edge of the air bag cover at the wheel's rim or the center of the air bag’s hub.

That doesn't make sense, really. I am all for being safe and such, but let's be realistic. Not every person has the ability to adjust to the 9-and-3 placement. It means re-teaching steering technique to non-enthusiasts, redesigning steering wheels to accommodate these drivers and other crazy safety nanny rules that keep us from truly enjoying the experience of driving.

If studies show that 10-and-2 steering wheel placement is absolutely unsafe, then explain exactly why and show us exactly how to drive our vehicles safely and competently by using a different position?

In recent drives, I did a test of whether it is practical for a normal driver to drive in the 9-and-3 position rather than the prescribed 10-and-2 set-up. First off, it does depend on the design of the steering wheel. If it accommodates such a steering wheel placement, then the chance of successful hand placement at the 9-and-3 position would placate the latest safety call. The drawback is arm positioning and a so-called "normal" driver's ability to work the arms and hands at turns using the "racing" technique.

The vehicle also comes into play. Most vehicles aren't designed for aggressive driving. Therefore, using the racing technique to work the steering wheel may be too much for the normal driver to handle.

Still, one must take in consideration the design of a steering wheel-mounted airbag. If it is true that a driver with the hands in the 10-and-2 position will most likely walk away from an accident with hand and arm injuries resulting from an airbag deployment, then let us re-educate each driver on the road on how to properly operate a motor vehicle.

This is not just about where you place your hands on a steering wheel. It is about re-introducing defensive driving, and instilling a culture of being less distractive by your personal devices and any drama in your life. It is about being a better, sharper driver – balancing the need to get to your destination and doing so competently.

What does hand placement on the steering have to do with driving safely? To become competent behind the wheel, one must comprehend the vehicle as you would anything you read and use every day. This is why there is now a drive to have redundant controls on the steering wheel with logical placement for whichever hand position you use on the steering wheel. Not everything is perfect, but at least the conversation is continuing as to any way to make your life easier by keeping your eyes on the road and aware of everything around you.

Which you rather choose: Reacting to a story in the news about some backlash of some technique you learned in Driver's Education or taking steps to improve the way you drive without any distraction from the media.

About the author


  1. If I remember correctly airbag popularity was just begining in the early 80's when I was just learning to drive. By the time I was 18 (in 1988) airbags were standard in all Chryslers. Early airbags system had design issues resulting in burns and in some cases fatalities caused solely by the airbags. I think knowing that at the same time I was learning to drive made a big impact on me.

    Some car manufacturers have built in bubble grip thingys on the steering wheel at 10 & 2 so I would hope they designed the airbag around that. Maybe we (meaning you) should start asking the car companies where we should be holding the wheel acording to their design… I certainly don't want to punch myself in the nose at 200mph if the airbag goes off.


  2. Nine and three or quarter to three is the ideal position, with the exception of very few cases like when the steering wheel is far to big for the driver or very poorly shaped or positioned.

    It provides the most stable steering, since the hands are placed further apart. This makes them operate as counteracting weights against the effects of gravity, bumps on the road and frequent steering corrections.

    It is also how the steering is designed to be held. It usually allows to rest the thumbs on the crossbrace and wrap the fingers around, providing better grip, and it's more comfortable since you are holding the wheel lower and closer to your body. You will also notice that ancillary controls like wipers come better into finger-reach in that position.

    Secondary safety in the event of airbag deployment is one last advent of this hand position. Holding the wheel high might result is scuffs on the inner forearm and even dislodge the arms towards the windows, roof, interior mirror or driver/passenger face. In quarter to three, the hands will remain on the wheel or at worst be moved sideways or downward to the hips.

    The author's assertions for race driving are incorrect. There is no difference between steering (as it is) on a road car (single-seaters put aside) on a track day and on the road. The steering is typically heavier and needs little turning, but it's still the same steering mechanism. The connection to aggressive driving is even more ridiculous, since track driving isn't aggressive and since there is little connection between hand positions (and their possible association to race driving) and aggressiveness.

    Ten to-two was issued in older cars where the steering wheel was much bigger so holding at quarter to three was wider than the driver's shoulders. The wheels were far heavier (even with power assistance), thin and stiff and had no airbag. Ancillary controls were bent upwards to fit this hand position.

    The ten inches rule has little to do with hands. It has to do with the driver breastbone or sternum, which needs to be in a distance greater than ten inches from the center of the steering hub, to avoid airbag injuries to the trunk and head by contacting it during it's early inflation phase. Drivers that are not extremely short will not encounter any problems here.

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