In the Driver

In the Driver's Seat: How to Improve Your Ride With Proper Ergonomics

by Tracey Wallace, on August 16, 2016

Most people have heard the term “ergonomics” when it comes to offices and computer use, or jobs that use the same motion over and over again. I’d like to introduce you to the concept of incorporating ergonomics while driving, too.

Driving a vehicle for a long period of time can be hard on your body. Anyone who has taken a long road trip has had that feeling when you finally arrive at your destination and you are all stiff and tired from driving. Imagine if your profession includes driving every day, such as Truck Drivers, Taxi Drivers, Bus Drivers, Forklift Operators, Traveling Sales People, Delivery People, etc.! The good news is that there are some ergonomic tips you can use to make the trip go easier on your body, whether you are on a family vacation or on the job.

Why do you feel tired and sore when you drive for long periods of time? There are three main factors: 1) Sitting for long periods of time, 2) Whole-body vibration, and 3) Sitting Position1.

The good news is that there are things you can do to alleviate the discomfort.

  • Sitting for Long Periods of Time
    Did your mother always tell you to sit up straight? There was a good reason she did. When you sit, your pelvis rolls backward and the small of your back flattens out. This increases the pressure in the discs of the spine. Additionally, if you sit incorrectly, you could develop pressure points in the buttocks and back of the legs, and cause muscle strain in the lower back.2 To reduce this risk from sitting for long periods of time, shift positions every 30 minutes or so by tilting your seat a notch or two back and forth. You should also stop and take a stretch break every hour for about 5 minutes.
  • Whole-Body Vibration
    Every vehicle produces a vibration from the engine and from traveling on the road. The vibration and normal bumps in the road cause an up-and-down movement of your vehicle, which can cause suppression in the lower back and cause your back muscles to become sore and fatigued. While you can’t eliminate vibration from an engine, by ensuring you take frequent breaks and that you are in a correct sitting position you can reduce the effects of whole-body vibration. There are special seats available that can be installed in trucks and heavy equipment that are specially designed to absorb some of the vibration. These are commonly called “air suspension systems” and will help absorb some of the vibration reducing fatigue and risk of injury.
  • Sitting Position
    Two of the biggest things within your control to help create a more comfortable drive is how you adjust yourself and utilize the controls inside the vehicle. Here are some tips to how to adjust the driver’s seat correctly 1,2,3:
  • Seat Height
    Bring the seat as high as you comfortably can to optimize your vision through the windows. You should be able to see at least three inches over the top of the steering wheel. Be careful of raising the seat too high; your hips should be about as high as your knees. You don’t want your thighs to press down on the seat bottom as this would reduce circulation in the legs.
  • Seat Cushion Length
    With your buttocks all the way back on the seat, you should have an approximate 2-3 finger-width of space between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees. This will reduce pressure on the back of the knees, which could cause poor circulation.
  • Seat Back Angle
    Recline the seat until it is approximately 110 degrees. This will reduce lumbar disc pressure.
  • Lumbar Support
    If your vehicle is equipped with lumbar support, adjust the support up/down and in/out until you feel an even pressure along your back from your hips to shoulders. There should be no gaps or pressure points in your back support area. If your vehicle is not adjustable, there are lumbar supports you can purchase or you can even use a properly placed rolled towel.
  • Steering Wheel
    Adjust the steering wheel height or tilt. Your arms should be in a comfortable position (not too high or too low). The less your elbows reach up and forward, the less strain on your neck and upper back.   Instead of holding on at the standard 10 and 2 o’clock positions, lower them to the 9 and 3 o’clock position. This is also a safer position in the event your air bag is deployed. Also, try to keep your wrists in a neutral position.
  • Adjust Mirrors
    This should be the final step after you are fully positioned. You should be able to see out of the mirrors without having to move your head. Car and Driver Magazine wrote a fantastic article titled, "How To: Adjust Your Mirrors to Avoid Blindspots" if you'd like to read further.

If you are an employer wanting to focus on safe driving with your employees, there are some great on-line resources I’d like to share. The US Department of Transportation has a Distracted Driver Employer Section with tools you can use to promote driving safety at your workplace.

One of the tools includes a program called Drive Safely Work Week Campaign. This program includes all the tools you need to provide your employees with attention-grabbing videos/handouts/talking points for each day of the week to increase awareness for driving safety. Each year’s program includes different topics for each day, so you can choose the topics that are most relevant to your organization.

1Liberty Mutual Insurance, Ergonomic Considerations for Driver Comfort, January 2012.

2Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Inc., Ergonomics and Driving, 

3Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, OSH Answers Fact Sheets: Driving and Ergonomics. 1997-2014.

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