The Debunker: Should Your Hands Be at Ten and Two on the Steering Wheel?

by Ken Jennings

December is a month full of festive observances, but one of the most important often gets overlooked: National Impaired Driving Prevention Month! Between all the holiday merrymaking and the terrible road conditions, it's a pretty good time to think more carefully about our driving. But what if not everything you think you know about the rules of the road is accurate? We have Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings behind the wheel all month to set you straight. Buckle up, check your blind spot, and pull away from the curb when it's safe and legal to do so.

The Debunker: Should Your Hands Be at Ten and Two on the Steering Wheel?

For decades, driver's ed teachers recommended that students place their hands at the ten o'clock and two o'clock positions, which were assumed to be the gold standard for leverage, comfort and control. But that's not true anymore, due to new research in ergonomics, and new technology in steering wheels.

The Debunker

Placing the hands at nine and three—"parallel position," it's called—is now recommended by AAA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and other authorities. This is especially important for young drivers, who often get into accidents by oversteering. Parallel position lowers the body's center of gravity, and tends to allow smaller and more accurate steering corrections.

But airbags are an even bigger issue. Many of us learned how to handle a steering wheel in an age when there wasn't a super-heated gas ready to explode right into our head and hands in case of impact. The old ten-and-two position puts the hands closer together, and has led to many cases of fractures and amputations when airbags deploy. Parallel position keeps your hands farther from the point of airbag impact. Also, to better protect your thumbs in case of a collision, rest them on the wheel itself rather than hooking them around its interior edge.

Thanks to airbags, that crossover "hand-over-hand" way that old-timers were taught to make sharp turns is now out of date as well, say many insurers and driving instructors. Crossing your arms can knock your other hand off the wheel, or seriously injure you when airbags pop. The NHTSA hasn't completely turned on hand-over-hand steering, but the agency only recommends it "at low speeds with limited visibility" and notes that the airbag thing makes it a risk. "Push-pull" steering—pulling the wheel down with one hand, then pushing it up on the other side with the other—is generally safer.

Quick Quiz: What fictional doctor is friends with a two-headed gazelle called a "pushmi-pullyou," which uses one of its heads to eat and the other to talk?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.