Driving Ergonomics – 7 Tips to Make Your Journey better

Ergonomics, as you may already know, is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interaction between humans and other elements of the system.

Good ergonomic practices should be followed at all times – be it standing, sleeping, typing, working, driving, etc.

When it comes to driving – the goal of ergonomics and its principles for driving is to minimize human error, prioritize safety and comfortability and enhance productivity.

Driving ergonomics aims to create a complete fit between driving, equipment, and environment.

Driving is a tedious task which requires constant movement and vibration. It also requires one to sit in a fixed position for a long duration.

Sitting while driving is different from sitting stationary at work.

While driving a vehicle, we are subjected to many different forces – vibrations from the battery, bumps in roads, movements from side to side, speeding and slowing, U-turns, extreme right and extreme left movements of the car etc.

We also need to use our feet while driving which means they cannot support our lower body.

The long routes in metropolitan cities and the traffic increase the time duration in the fixed position. This can further damage our body.

I am sure you can relate to the sores after long drives.

Many people suffer from pains and aches due to driving.

According to Nick Gkikas – who is an ergonomic expert at Autonomics – over a long-term, these discomforts become the cause of injuries to spine, muscles, joints etc and can even cause impairment.

This can be reduced if we understand how the body works and what should be the correct way of driving according to human physiology.

Before I tell you some driving ergonomics tips, let me first cover a few risks that you’re exposed to when driving.

Risks of Driving – Repetitive Driving Injury

According to a study by ebaymotors in the UK, almost half of the UK population suffer from a new painful condition called Repetitive Driving Injury (RDI).

The five most common Repetitive Driving Injuries are foot cramps, lumbar pain, stiff neck, side ache, and headache/eye strain.

Here are some useful facts from the study:

Women are more prone to driving injuries

The study also stated that almost 2 million drivers start to suffer from these symptoms just after 15 minutes of driving.

It also found that women start to face the RDI quicker than men with 58 % women feeling them within two hours of the journey.

Whole body vibration causes musculoskeletal problems, digestive and prostate problems as well as miscarriages in women according to Kristine, a research biologist at NIOSH.

It also causes muscle fatigue, decreases the discs height in the lumbar spine and disc degeneration.

The Lower Back is Most Impacted when Driving

The lower back injury is the most common injury in RDI. Lower back pain has a huge economic impact. Pain becomes chronic leading to hours away from work to show the doctor.

Sitting for a long duration in a fixed position causes muscles to squeeze blood vessels. This leads to less blood supply and heart activity is affected. Sitting upright for long causes blood to pool up in lower legs causing to numbness and swelling leading to injury.

Spinal discs also get compressed leading to premature degeneration. Sitting in an awkward position (that is a position which does not suit the body physiology – unergonomic)  causes strain on muscles, tendons, and ligaments around the joint. It causes compression leading to damage.

Repeated driving lead to pain and tissue damage even if duration and vibration are less and even if the posture of the body is correct. Back injury chances increase on lifting immediately after driving.

Obese people are at higher risk

Obese people are more likely to have an injury due to their overweight and strain in their lower back muscles and bones.

Getting tired is a common risk of driving. Fatigue results in impaired attention, reaction speeds. It also results in impaired vision and memory thus decreases drivers ability.

Tiredness causes microsleeps, which are unintended light periods of sleep. This can be in form of a lapse in concentration, blankly staring /daydreaming or nodding off. Microsleeps can be from a few seconds to a minute.

Prolonged sun exposure can also impact the well-being

One more important risk is sun exposure. Most cars only block out 35-37% of harmful UV rays. Vulnerable areas of sun exposure are eyes, face, neck, arms, and hands particularly right side of the body. Sunlight causes Pigmentation, sun damage and increase chances of skin cancer.

Who Are at Risk?

  • Truck drivers, Ambulance drivers & Bus drivers
  • Traveling sales workers
  • Taxi and cab drivers
  • Delivery and courier service workers
  • Those who commute for 2 or more hours every day.

We can’t escape from driving. It is a modern-day lifestyle demand. What we can do is safeguard ourselves from harm by taking proper precautions.

Driving Ergonomics – Tips

Here I am sharing with you 7 tips to make the journey better.

Remember that every driver has different ergonomic need depending on the size of the driver and their regular mileage.

Choose Your Vehicle Carefully

Remember the more adjustable features, the more comfortable your posture.

  • Choose a comfortable and supportive seat which allows you to adjust the seat height and tilt independently of each other.
  • The base of the seat should neither be long or short. there should be sufficient gap between the back of your knee and the edge of the seat. The seat should be wider than your knees and thighs.
  • The backrest should be wide enough to support your shoulders and should come to shoulder height. An adjustable lumbar support should be able to adjust up and down and in and out.
  • Choose an adjustable steering wheel. One that can move in and out, up and down and also be able to tilt
  • Power steering will help remove load from your back.
  • An automatic gearbox can be helpful.
  • Make sure the pedals and steering wheel are centrally placed.
  • Choose a car with proper sill height. So you can move in and out and take out things from the car without hurting yourself.

Before You Get into the Vehicle

Before starting your journey, make sure to lower the windows or open the car doors for a while.

  • Car interiors are filled with toxic chemicals that off-gas from different parts of the car like steering, dashboard or carpets. According to Jeff Gearheart, research director at ecology center, some of these toxic chemicals are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Our bodies are bombarded with toxic chemicals every time we step into the car. These chemicals are even more toxic when they exposed to extreme temperatures like heat.
  • Make sure you have parked your car in a shaded area away from heat. Lower the windows or open doors for 5-10 mins before entering.
  • Use sun reflectors on your dashboard to keep the heat away.
  • Check if your car has a filtration system. Replace the filter when needed.
  • Wash your hands after driving and make your passengers wash hands as well.
  • Pregnant women, infants, and children are especially vulnerable to health impacts of toxic chemical exposure.
  • Remove everything from your back pockets. Lower back, hips, and pelvis will be uneven creating pressure points leading to back pain.

When Getting Seated in the Vehicle

While getting seated in the vehicle, check the following:

  • Keep the seat height to its lowest.
  • The seat should be fully back rearward.
  • The backrest should be tilted at 30-degree angle
  • Steering wheel facing upwards and forwards.
  • Push the seat forwards to your feet can push the clutch pedal and accelerator pedal comfortably without having to reach out for it.
  • There should be a slight gap between the back of your knees and the edge of the seat.
  • Raise the seat height until you can get a clear vision of the road and dashboard.
  • There should be a sufficient gap between the head and roof of the car in the event of a collision.
  • Adjust the cushion tilt angle of the base of the seat so that it fully supports your thighs along its length.
  • Your hips should be aligned with your thighs and knees. This position will help lower the back flexion. Use a cushion if hips are lower.
  • The seat belt should not be too tight. Use soft and thick covers or order seat belt covers online for comfort and to prevent chafing.
  •  The backrest should help keep spine neutral and should support the whole of the spine up to shoulder level. There should be no pressure points or gaps.
  • The decline of the seat should be at 100-110 degree angle to decrease pressure on the back.
  • Avoid reclining the seat too far as it will lead to forward-bending of head and neck. Thighs might also slide forwards.
  • Shoulders should be slightly behind the hips.
  • The headrest should not be used as a support. It should be 1 inch from the back of your head and at a level with the bony lump at the back of your head. In this way, your neck muscles and ligaments will support your head in case of an accident.
  • Most of the car seats are uncomfortable and do not provide sufficient back support. Invest in a good car lumbar support pillow. You can also roll up a towel and put in the curve of your lower back.
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Managing Steering Wheel, Mirror Vision, and other Accessories

  • Adjust the steering wheel rearwards and downwards for easy reach.
  • Try to grip the wheels loosely since tension in the hands gets transferred directly to the spine.
  • Display panel should not be obstructed by the steering position
  • There should be a gap between knees and thighs and steering for good leg movement.
  • Keep both the hands on the wheels with the left hand at 9 ‘0 clock position and right hand at 3 ‘0 clock position.
  • Keep it close so you can rest your wrists without stretching. This reduces reaching and prevents strain in your upper back neck and shoulders
  • According to safety guidelines in Canada, there should be a 10-inch gap between your breastbone and the steering.
  • Hands should be positioned much below the shoulder level.
  • Adjust the rear view and side mirror to your line of sight so that you don’t have to strain your neck and upper body part.
  • Keep windows clean and clear to avoid unnecessary blind spots.
  • If you do have blind spots, buy an additional mirror and place it on your dashboard for you to see.
  •  All accessories and instruments like tissue paper, sunglasses, remotes, stereo, GPS holder should be within reach without back having to leave the backrest.
  • This will prevent twisting and unnecessary reaching out at awkward angles.

Below is the image of a good driving ergonomics practices.

Driving Ergonomics

(Image source: DailyMail.Co.UK)

Dealing with Vibration, Sun exposure, and Microsleeps

  •  Vibration can be somewhat absorbed and decreased with thick firm foam car seats.
  • Alternate between and non-driving activity if possible to reduce vibration exposure.
  • Try to maintain a neutral position with the lumbar curve being maintained instead of sitting upright as the spine will absorb the shock better.
  • To prevent getting tired and microsleeps ensure you sleep at night for 7-8 hours before driving.
  • Avoid driving on medications as it can cause drowsiness.
  • Eat a well-balanced meal avoiding fatty acids as they cause drowsiness.
  • Try keeping windows down as fresh cool air increases alertness.
  • Try listening to music to prevent microsleeps.
  • Alternate driving with your friend when on a long drive.
  • Have a UV blocking/protecting film on all windows to avoid sun exposure.
  • Wear sun protective clothing like long sleeves or a hat.
  • Wear sunglasses to prevent glare and reflection of UV rays.
  • Apply sunscreen and lip balm SPF 30+ 20 minutes before exposure and reapply after 2 hours

Avoid Continuous Driving – Take Frequent Breaks

  • Take a break for 15 minutes every 2 hours
  • Unfasten seat belt, push the seat back fully and get up from the car.
  • Do a non-driving activity
  • Do not drive for more than 8 hours a day
  • Switch off the engine and get up
  • Move around or stretch
  • Take a mini toilet break or snack break
  • This will ensure fatigue not setting into the already tired muscles
  • Use a different set of muscles. Close your eyes and rest for a while
  • Park on the side. Stand up and walk. Take or make a phone call.

Stretch/Exercise Whenever You Can

Don’t do this in the middle of the road, but whenever you get a chance, get out of the vehicle and stretch a bit.

  • If you are making a long journey, adjust the setting of the seat every 30 minutes. The adjustment should be small to ensure the pressure on the spine is varied.
  • When stopping at traffic signals or stuck in a jam, exercise your muscles.
  • Raise your shoulders up and down
  • Roll your shoulders back into the seat and outwards.
  • Keep breathing while doing all exercises
  • Tilt neck to each side
  • Interlock your fingers with palm out, stretch forwards and hold. Then up to the roof and hold.
  • Do not keep eyes off the road while doing these exercises.
  • Once you have finished driving, don’t lift heavy objects immediately. Relax, stretch, walk around and practice correct manual handling techniques ( bend knees not back, park close to the delivery area etc)

And lastly, no matter how comfortable driving is, the human body was not made to sit for a long duration in one position.

Also, even though the driver is more at risk as he is using the steering wheel, pedals and is in control of the car, don’t forget that co passengers also need a good ergonomic seat and back support!

I hope you find these driving ergonomics tips useful.

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