Mark Walton on steering wheel design, CAR+ January 2016

Published: 26 November 2015

► Walton discusses steering wheel design
► Three different driving positions – two are wrong!
► Why holding the wheel at ten-to-two needs to stop 

There are three kinds of people in the world – just three – and they are categorised according to how they hold the steering wheel. I’m not talking about when you’re cruising up the motorway, because everyone adopts the standard one-hand-at-5-o-clock, elbow-on-the-arm-rest position for that. 

No, I’m talking about how you hold the wheel on a wriggly road, or when you’re going round a roundabout. Of course the correct position is quarter-to-three: the rally driver’s position, the professional’s position. Thumbs hooked over the spokes of the wheel, fingers wrapped gently round the back, grasping the wheel like this shows authority and control. Even a local midwife, driving her Aygo, looks like she’s ready to counter a sudden oversteer when holding the wheel like this. 

The second group holds the wheel a two-minutes-to-twelve, eight fingers hooked over the top like a chimp hanging from a branch. This is the laziest position: usually the driver is hunched forwards, peering over the rim, elbows together and almost resting on the horn. This kind of driver NEVER MOVES THEIR HANDS. Even in the middle of a roundabout, they simply flop their whole body over to turn the wheel, still gripping at two-to-twelve. This position offers about as much control as steering with your knees, while opening a packet of crisps. Jackie Stewart never held the wheel like this on his way to three world championships. 

But these drivers aren’t the ones I’m annoyed with. The third group is the worst of all, and if you’re an offender please sit down and have a serious conversation with yourself. The third group holds the wheel at ten-to-two, which makes them feel conscientious and careful because that’s what they were taught by their instructor 20 years ago. Really, you’re just a few degrees away from two-to-twelve. 

A couple of years ago the American Automobile Association (AAA) tried to change the position that US drivers hold the wheel, saying that the traditional ten-to-two position isn’t just outdated, it’s dangerous. We’ve all got power steering now, they argued, so there’s no need to pull downward from high on the wheel to initiate a turn (which is where ten-to-two came from). Not only that, the AAA warned that if an airbag went off with your arms in that position, it could make you smack yourself in the face, which would be funny, if it wasn’t deadly serious. Which means it’s not funny at all. Unless you watch a slow-motion movie of it happening to someone else. 

Anyway, ‘William E. Van Tassel’ of the AAA posted a video on YouTube, warning Americans of this danger, and bizarrely he recommended they adopt a low ‘eight-and-four’ position. I don’t know anyone who drives with their hands down between their knees; and wouldn’t it just turn an airbag-punch-in-the-face into an involuntary smack-in-the-testicles?

But I digress, because I don’t care about your safety. The reason I’m so annoyed with you ten-to-two-ers is that you’re actually influencing interior design, for the worse. A few years ago, all steering wheel rims used to be slender and smooth all the way around. Over time, they started to become more ergonomically shaped, like those orange kitchen scissors, with soft grooves or bulges appearing around the rim. That’s when I started noticing two fattened sections of the wheel, up at ten-to-two – like little markers for people who don’t know where to hold the wheel. These days there’s a fashion for really exaggerated wheels, with flat bottoms and flappy paddles and buttons all over the place like a Formula 1 car. As part of this fad, those soft bulges at ten-to-two have become huge, ugly knobbles that make the steering wheel look like it’s grown a pair of bear’s ears. The sportier the car, the bigger they get – look at a Fiat Abarth, a Toyota GT86 or the Subaru WRX – their wheels are so misshapen they look like they’ve melted. Remember the famous ‘quartic’ square wheel on the Austin Allegro? Nowadays wheels are becoming triangular as the top half is filled in with leather and bad design. 

Cut it out, CAR readers. Changing the world starts one driver at a time. Hold the wheel at quarter-to-three, like a pro, and not only will you encourage better design, you might save yourself a smack in the nuts too. 

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast