Researchers Find Optimal Distance to Sit from Steering Wheel to Stay Safe in Crashes

NBC29 WVIR via UVA Today

January 23, 2019

Edited by Emmy Freedman

How close you sit to an airbag could dictate how hurt you get in the event of a car crash.

For some people, having short legs forces them to scoot their seat closer to the steering wheel. But now, evidence from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that no matter the reason, the closer you sit to the wheel puts you at greater risk of getting hurt.

It takes just a blink of an eye for airbags to be deployed at full force to protect you in a crash, and the IIHS now has a set target for people sitting in the driver seat.

“To be fully protected from an airbag in a crash, we recommend that you stay at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel,” Becky Mueller, a research engineer with the IIHS, said.

That’s roughly the distance between your wrist and elbow. Anything within 3 inches of that could enhance the risk of injuries to your upper body.

“People can certainly be injured by airbags or sustain abrasions, but they can also bottom out an airbag which means just go through it and hit the steering wheel,” Dr. Thomas Hartka, an assistant professor of emergency medicine with the University of Virginia Health System, said. “And a lot of times it’s hard to differentiate whether an injury was from the airbag or from the steering wheel underneath.”

But there is good news for people who may fear airbags and have newer cars.

“Airbags of today are much smarter than the original airbags from the 1990’s – they can sense whether you’re wearing your seat belt or not, how much you weigh, and also where your seat is positioned,” Mueller said.

That information determines if you need a softer or harder airbag to provide optimal protection in a crash.

“It’s amazing – vehicles every year continue to become safer, we see especially elderly patients that are fairly fragile in high speed collisions that don’t sustain any serious injuries and it’s amazing how safe vehicles have become,” Hartka said.

“So whether you’re sitting all the way back or at midtrack in the seat position or full forward, cars are optimized to protect for all different-sized people riding in them,” Mueller said.

If you’re someone who has tried following these recommendations but still cannot reach the pedals, the institute recommends moving the seat forward and then reclining it slightly to reach the recommended safety distance from the steering wheel.

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