How to sit in the car

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Disclaimer:  I am a massage therapist with some engineering skillz.  I am not a licensed doctor and the following is just my opinion based off of personal research. The information presented is not a guarantee of safety.  


Do you have a significant work commute? Or maybe you are road tripping for the holidays?  Driving posture is just as important as computer posture and sleeping posture.  However, with driving posture, you need to make sure that you are also in a safe position for an unexpected accident.  While car crashes can sometimes be avoided, you can’t always depend on other cars to do as expected.  If an accident is unavoidable, your best defense is to be in the correct position in the car.  If you are even slightly out of position (OOP) this will lead to more severe injuries that are difficult to recover from.  Don’t be OOP, be a (crash test) dummy!

Crash test dummy / Photo by Brady Holt

Sitting Like a Dummy to Minimize Injuries

Sitting in a car that is traveling on the roadways is risky.  In 2014, one person died every 25 minutes in a passenger vehicle in the United States from a car crash (and someone got injured every 2.5 minutes) [1].  You are less likely to die doing any one of these sports than in a car accident [2]:

  1. Skydiving
  2. Scuba diving
  3. Bungee Jumping

Cars are designed with safety in mind.  In order to test the safety of the car, crash test dummies (instead of actual people) are used in experimental crashes to predict the biomechanics, force, impact, and injury to a human body in an automobile crash.  The dummies are put in the car, buckled in, and then the car is crashed.  Cars are designed with the idea that the actual human will be sitting just like these guys in the car.  Do you sit like the dummies? (You should, all the time!)

Sit like the dummies to minimize bodily injury during a car crash. / Photo available in the public domain

Wear your seat belt.  Seat belts keep your body strapped to the vehicle and help control the position and the deceleration of the body during a crash.  Even though your car has airbags, seat belts are still necessary.  Seat belts reduce side to side motion whereas airbags do not.  And even though air bags help decelerate the body, two devices to slow your body is better than one.  So wear your seat belt!  

Seat belts help control your position and deceleration in a car crash. / Photo available via CC0

Don’t wear heavy coats in the car.  This prevents the seat belt from engaging as quickly as it could.  In the split seconds during the car crash, that extra distance may mean more severe injuries to your body.   Additionally, after the car and you have warmed up, you will likely unbuckle your seat belt, get OOP trying to take off your coat, and be distracted.  All of which increase crash potential and injury severity.

Don’t put your feet up on the dashboard.  While this position is comfortable when the car is not actively crashing, this position becomes much more uncomfortable during a crash.  If the accident happens at low speed and the airbags don’t deploy, you might end up with a labral tear of your hip (your labrum is in a weakened position if rear ended while your leg is at this angle), which will cause constant, deep hip pain and require surgery and months of physical therapy to fix.  If the airbags deploy, however, your legs will be thrown up into your face, potentially causing facial fractures and brain damage.  Additionally, your chest and ribs may fracture from the impact of your legs and your leg bones and pelvis may break.  Don’t put your feet up on the dash, or anywhere else (out the window, resting on the door, cross legged, tucked under your body, etc).  Keep your feet in the foot compartment.  

So comfortable, but so risky. Don’t put your feet up on the dash! / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Don’t recline your seat.  If your seat is reclined during a car crash, it doesn’t allow your seat belt to restrain your body as designed and will result in “submarining.”  This cute descriptive term describes the action of your body sliding out from under the seat belt, which might result in death, internal organ damage, spinal cord injury, and potential amputations that would otherwise have been avoided had you not been reclined. Don’t recline your seat.   

Don’t recline your seat (even though it is much more comfortable, just don’t do it!) / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Headrests are extremely important.  They aren’t there for decoration!  Headrests help to minimize whiplash and keep your head attached to your body during a car crash.  I have rarely noticed anyone adjusting their headrest when getting in a different car–and you should, that is why they are adjustable.  My parents don’t keep the headrests installed for the back seat of their car–which is great for the dog and the dog’s blanket, but less so for passengers.  I got in their car one time after a weekend visit and couldn’t find my headrest for my seat (it was on the shelf in the garage).  And we drove an hour to the airport without it, on interstates!  I was pretty anxious about it and actually laid down so at least my head would stay attached in the event of a car crash (but then I was OOP, so I don’t know which would actually be better).  Always adjust your headrest.  And make sure all of the occupants of your car do the same.  To adjust your headrest, raise it up to be even with at least the top of your ears, and then pull it forward so that the headrest is no more than 3 inches away from your head, the closer the better [3].  

Headrests help minimize whiplash injuries. / Image created by Bodymybody.com using vectors from Vecteezy

Adjust your seat to be as far away from the dashboard and steering column as possible.  During a crash, your body will continue moving at 60 mph while your car has suddenly stopped.  The more distance you have for your body to slow before impacting a hard object the better.  Your body will be slowed by the seat belt and the airbags, which will reduce or prevent the impact of your body on other parts of the car–dashboard, windshield, steering column, etc.  Obviously, if you have rear passengers, you may have to bring your seat forward so they have a place to put their feet.  But for the most part, keep your seat back as far as possible, while still being able to reach the steering wheel and drive safely.

My seat is as far as comfortable away from steering column and dashboard, seatbelt on, headrest properly adjusted, loose grip, feet in the foot compartment. / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Keep your car clean.  Any loose objects will become projectiles during a crash.  So, keep your groceries in the trunk, or keep them in the rear compartment by means of a cargo cover (affiliate).  This also includes your passengers.  If you have a passenger that is not buckled in, not only are they at an increased risk for injury and death in the event of a car crash, but they also become a very heavy projectile which can cause injury to other occupants in the car.

Stay fit.  Muscles help protect your body.  I had a friend in college who was super skinny.  He had little muscle tone and little fat.  He got in a crash and was told by his physical therapist afterwards that if he had had muscles, his injuries would not have been so severe.  His muscles would have provided protection for his internal organs and would have helped keep his bones where bones are supposed to be, instead of being stretched and contorted at the joints.  The other extreme is also true.  Although overweight and slightly obese people are somewhat protected by the built in cushioning, moderately obese and morbidly obese people are at an increased risk for injury in a car crash because their body sits closer to the steering column, dashboard and airbags [4].  Also, obese people are significantly less likely to use their seatbelts [5].  

Other Ways to Minimize Injuries

Don’t pump your brakes (if your car has ABS).  The majority of the cars on the road nowadays are outfitted with “antilock brakes” which means the wheels don’t lock up during emergency braking which gives you some steering control.  However, when the antilock brakes are engaged, the brake pedal pulses and sometimes scares drivers into letting off of the pedal, which will increase stopping distance (that’s bad).  

Don’t speed.  Surprisingly, speed limits aren’t just excuses for cops to pull you over.  Speed limits are implemented based upon a wide variety of factors like visibility, the number of intersections, the number of pedestrians and cyclists, lane width, shoulder type and width, wildlife potential, median type and width, and parking activities along the road.  Speeding reduces the time and distance available to you as the driver to see potential issues up ahead and may also affect other drivers on the road.  Additionally, the traffic lights on a stretch of road are typically timed to the posted speed limit.  To avoid starting and stopping all through town, just cruise at the posted speed limit.  To reduce crash likelihood, severity and injury potential, don’t speed.  

There are numerous factors taken into consideration when deciding a speed limit for a road. / Photo available via CC0

Especially don’t speed at night.  During nighttime, your headlights on a dark road will only illuminate so far into the darkness (about 160 feet).  You don’t know what is past your headlights.  Once your headlights illuminate something–a cow that got out of a nearby field, other large wildlife, a stalled car, or a ninja car (car that forgot to turn on their lights), you will need to react, which takes time.  During the time for you to react, your car will continue at about the same speed it was going before you saw the hazard.  Then you apply your brakes, and the stopping distance will be proportional to your speed that you were traveling at before you braked.  This handy graph from NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) shows how dangerous speeding at night can be.  This would also apply to tailgating and why tailgating is so dangerous.

Stopping distance at varioius speeds / Image available in the public domain

Sitting Correctly for Posture

If you are road tripping, or commuting for work, you are spending lots of time in the car.  It is important to maintain a good posture when in the car, so as to not create muscle stiffness or ongoing postural problems.  

Don’t sit on your wallet.  Sitting on your wallet doesn’t allow your pelvis to rest evenly.  This can create muscle problems in your back, and may aggravate your sciatic nerve.  Over time, this can also be a factor in disc herniation.  

Don’t sit on your wallet. This will eventually cause you pain. / Image created by Bodymybody.com using vectors from Vecteezy

Keep your ears above your shoulders.  Many people, while driving, while bring their head forward to look around corners or change lanes, and then never reset their head back to a more neutral position.  Sometimes stress and nerves can be a factor.  Ideally, as with posture while walking and sitting at your computer desk, keep your ears on top of your shoulders (if you have forward and rounded shoulders though, this may not be a good metric for you.  Instead think about keeping your ears in line with your hips).  Keeping your head on your shoulders will help prevent forward head posture and will also reduce whiplash severity during a car crash.

Don’t grip the steering wheel tightly and don’t bring your head forward while driving. This affects your posture and reduces the effectiveness of your headrest during a crash. / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Don’t white knuckle the steering wheel.  Consistently holding on to the steering wheel so tight that your knuckles turn white will cause “tennis elbow.”  This grip will create chronically tight flexors and weakened extensors, which are the main causes for tennis elbow.  Only grip the steering wheel as much as needed.

Sit and Spin.  When getting into and out of a car, a common tactic is to put one foot in, slide your body to the seat, and bring the next foot in.  This action can aggravate sciatic issues, back pain, and hip pain, especially (but not exclusive to) pregnant women.  Instead, open the car door, sit on the seat, and then spin both your legs into the car.  This reduces torque on the pelvis and will help to alleviate pain. 

Putting in one leg first and then the other can aggravate sciatic issue, and back and hip pain. / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Sit down in your seat and then spin, keeping your hips neutral. / Photo by Bodymybody.com

Stenocleidomastoid muscle / Image available in the public domain

Red Light Tasks:  While waiting at red lights, there are many things you can do, and a few things you should do.  You could unbuckle your seat belt to take off your coat, or awkwardly torque your body to reach something in the back seat.  Both of these are not great things to do in the event that you get rear ended.  Even though you are stopped, maintain a crash test dummy position.  Time waiting at a red light is well spent double checking your posture and reposition your head back towards the headrest.  I also like to self massage my sternocleidomastoid muscles (SCMs for short)–a chronically tight neck muscle in modern day society. Tight SCMs are one of the main culprits in forward head posture.  To self massage your SCM, just turn your head slightly away from the SCM you want to massage and and then tip your head slightly towards the same side of the SCM.  This will pop it out and you can grab and pinch.  Hold for about 5-10 seconds, and then repeat all along the muscle.  

To self massage your SCMs, turn your head, tip your head, and then pinch all along the SCM. / Photo by Bodymybody.com

 

Obviously, by the length of this blog post, properly sitting in your car is more important than one would first think. Driving a car is also more dangerous than we recognize. Because it is something we do daily, we often are desensitized to its dangers. Remembering to sit properly in the car while traveling can affect your posture and save your life. Stay safe out there!


References:

[1] U. S. Department of Transportation. “DOT HS 812 302 Traffic Safety Facts Passenger Vehicles 2014 Data.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. United States Department of Transportation, July 2016. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

[2] “Your Chances of Dying.” BestHealthDegrees.com. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

[3] “How to save Your Neck in a Rear-end Crash.” Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports, Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

[4] Jehle, Dietrich, MD, Seth Gemme, and Christopher Jehle. “Influence of Obesity on Mortality of Drivers in Severe Motor Vehicle Crashes.” The American Journal of Emergency Medicine30.1: 191-95. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Elsevier Inc. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

[5] Jehle, Dietrich, MD, Chirag Doshi, BS, Jenna Karagianis, MD, Joseph Consiglio, MA, and Gabrielle Jehle. “Obesity and Seatbelt Use: A Fatal Relationship.” The American Journal of Emergency Medicine 32.7 (2014): 756-60. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Elsevier Inc. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.


 

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