Silly car question #12: how should I hold a steering wheel?
The steering wheel is a stroke of genius, don't you think?
Although we take it for granted now, it wasn't an integral part of the earliest automobiles. A Panhard that competed in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race is generally thought to be the first car to sport an actual steering wheel (the idea was inspired by the boating world). Good idea. It caught on.
But here's the thing: as car technology and handling characteristics have evolved, so have the techniques for using this so-called "steering wheel".
Many, such as the "shuffle" or "push-pull", still have their advocates but fundamentally belong to time when cars had unassisted steering and enormous wheels to hang onto to, so the desire to steer accurately and safely had to be balanced with the need to get enough leverage to actually turn the thing in the first place.
Such techniques have been used with great success in the past. Racing drivers such as Juan-Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss used their own interpretations of the push-pull technique - where you feed the wheel from one hand to another - to become racing legends in decades gone by. Who's going to say they were wrong?
But the fact remains that these techniques belong to another time. You don't see current Formula One drivers shuffling the wheel. They can't - the things are square.
According to TrackTime advanced driving instructor Mike Eady, Kiwis are particularly guilty of sticking with the habits of their parents and grandparents when it comes to wheelcraft.
"A lot of people have been taught to drive shuffling through the corners. Then we started talking about 10-to-2. Unfortunately in New Zealand, we still talk about 10-to-2; but that position was changed 30 years ago."
Ten-to-two? If you imagine the steering wheel as an analogue clockface, the 10-to-2 position would have your left hand at 10 and your right at 2, both on the upper half of the wheel.
The problem with 10-to-2 is that you are essentially still leaning on the wheel to turn it, and that can easily turn into something more like both hands at 12 or even an underhand position when you come to turn - another hangover from the days of cars with no power steering.
"The correct steering position for any car is quarter-to-three," says Eady. "Your hands go either side of the spokes of the steering wheel."
Indeed, most modern cars have indentations in the left and right quarter-to-three positions for just this purpose - so you can slot your thumbs in there and feel comfortable.
"This is correct for a few reasons. First, we have great orientation of where the steering wheel is. You know where straight-ahead is and you know exactly how much angle is on the wheel. So now you can go through corners [hands at a fixed position] like a racing driver.
But what happens when you've turned the wheel enough to have your arms crossed over?
"All you do is drop the bottom hand through the corner, and pick it up [same position on the wheel) on the way around again."
Simple, right? You should only ever touch the steering wheel in two places. Which is why those F1 drivers can have square wheels in the first place. Or why so many road cars now come with D-shaped or "flat-bottom" steering wheels.
Better control increases your active safety - the ability to avoid an accident. But proper steering position also assists passive safety - the ability of the car to protect you should the worst happen.
"A quarter-to-three position keeps our hands away from the dreaded airbag [in the centre of the wheel]," says Eady. "If it goes off and you have a bad steering position, the first thing the airbag is going to get is your arms. With your hands either side, the airbag will inflate into the chest, nice and safe."