Think your office seat is bad for you? How about all that time in those ergonomic disasters that are car seats? A seat recline too great, a gap too big to the pedals, a sightline too low, or the all-too-common slumping seat can cause chronic aches and pains, especially for commuters. In a recent survey, more than 50 percent of people who said they drove regularly for their jobs complained of back discomfort.
"Incorrect seat and steering wheel setup is likely to mean drivers adopt awkward, slouched, or unsupported postures, which can contribute to discomfort," says Margaret Hanson, a chartered ergonomist and human factors specialist at the U.K. consulting firm WorksOut. But it's not hard to fix. Here's what to do:
1. Seat basics.
To start, a seat should be wider than your hips and thighs. It should be long enough to support your hamstrings, but short enough that it does not put pressure behind your knee while your are driving. If you can make length adjustments, RECARO Automotive Seating Group (the Michigan manufacturer of superlight, high-performance racing seats, in addition to seating for many luxury auto brands) recommends a two- to three-finger width space between the front edge of the seat and the hollow behind your knee.
2. Make sure everything is in reach.
You should be able to reach the pedals and all hand controls without stretching. "Having the steering wheel too far from a comfortable driving position could result in shoulder and upper back discomfort, while too close makes getting into and out of the vehicle more difficult," says Hanson. You should also be able to see the instrument panels and clock on your dashboard without moving from your driving position. Adjust the seat height up or down accordingly until this is possible.
3. Pay attention to the backrest.
The backrest should support the entire length of your spine and should not come above your shoulders or obstruct your rear view. "The best adjustment to make for back pain is to the lumbar support — increase or decrease it so that it is supporting the small of your back and adjust its height so it supports you where your back curves in the most," suggest Hanson. If your car is lacking this adjustable feature, place a small cushion or rolled up hand towel in the small of your back instead.
4. Measuring your pedal distance.
To find your seat's ideal forward/backward distance, follow this advice from RECARO Automotive Seating's team of ergo experts: Slide your butt as deep into the seat crease as it will go. From this position, your knees should be slightly bent when the pedals are completely depressed.
5. Setting the tilt.
Set the backrest tilt so that your elbows are slightly bent when both hands are on the wheel, and you are able to maintain wheel contact even when the wheel is turning. "The comfortable degree of seat recline will depend on the individual and the height of the seat," says Hanson. "In general, an open angle at the hips of approximately 110 degrees is likely to be suitable for many drivers. Reclining too far back may strain on your neck due to having to hold your head forward."
6. Fix the headrest.
The headrest should be adjusted so that the top edge is level with the top of your head, according to RECARO. Set the tilt so that it is about 2 cm from the back of your head. "If your headrest is too low, it could be a serious problem in the event of a rear or front collision, since the headrest will not adequately restrain the head," points out Hanson.
Bonus Buyer's Guide: The Car Seat Cheat Sheet
When checking out new cars, keep these points in mind from vehicle ergonomics researchers at Loughborough University in London.
*Does the seat have an independent tilt adjustment?
*Does the seat have an independent height adjustment?
*Does the backrest reach your shoulders?
*Is your back supported without any gaps or pressure points?
*Does the seat length put pressure on your calves or back of knees?
*Is the head restraint height near the top of your head?
*Is the head restraint positioned close to your head?
*Does the steering wheel adjust up/down, in/out, and tilt?
*Is there a left foot rest?