BACK trouble is almost up there with the common cold, afflicting four out of five people. But there’s worse news for drivers: according to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), 40% of people say that sitting down aggravates back or neck pain. It’s enough to have motorists shuffling uncomfortably in their seat.
What can drivers do to ensure they’re sitting comfortably? And before spending a small fortune on a replacement car, how can they know that it won’t be akin to some sort of wicked device for torture, contorting spines, cricking necks and causing cramps in the legs?
Driving has turned to the expects, seeking advice from the BCA, seat maker Recaro and Volvo, the Swedish car maker famed for its comfortable seats. Here’s their advice for anyone who finds it difficult to get comfortable at the wheel of their car.
How to adjust your driver’s seat properly
You wouldn’t set off up Everest without first lacing up your hiking boots, says Robin Page, the vice president of interior design for Volvo. So it’s important to fine tune your driving position to suit your bodyshape.
“Seat comfort is best achieved with the correct distribution of weight and support for the body, and the ability to make adjustments if you feel the need to change position,” says Page.
All our experts recommend that drivers have their seat pulled far enough forward so that they can fully extend the clutch pedal while maintaining a slight bend in the knee.
The backrest of the seat should be tilted back ever so slightly, and when turning the steering wheel your shoulders should remain in contact with the seat – rather than hunched forward.
The backrest of the seat should be tilted back ever so slightly, and when turning the steering wheel your shoulders should remain in contact with the seat
Rishi Loatey, a practising chiropractor and member of the BCA, adds that the centre of the headrest must sit higher than a driver’s ears. “If it’s lower than the ears, it acts as a fulcrum in an accident, which actually worsens the effects of whiplash.”
Will we see adjustable pedals appear on more new cars in the future? Robin Page suggests it’s very likely, especially “the more we move into the world of autonomous driving.” Page foresees the pedals moving out of sight once a car is driving itself, returning only when necessary.
Recaro, a car seat manufacturer that has been making car seats since 1965, started out with products for motor racing but today the company is finding there is increasing demand for its range of orthopedic seats. It has created the following video for adjusting your seat, which helps visualise the tips above.
Recaro’s step-by-step guide to the correct driving position
N.b. Not all seats have every method of adjustment mentioned below, but try to follow the general advice for comfort within the realms of possibility presented by your own car seat.
- Push your bottom as near as possible to the backrest. The distance from the seat to the pedals is adjusted so that your knee is slightly bent when the pedals are fully depressed.
- Rest your shoulders as closely as possible to the backrest. Set the backrest tilt so that the steering wheel is easy to reach with slightly bent elbows. The shoulder contact must be maintained when the steering wheel is turned.
- Set the seat height as high as possible. This ensures an unobstructed view to all sides and all displays on the instrument panel.
- Set the seat cushion tilt so that it is easy to fully depress the pedals. The thighs should rest gently on the seat cushion without exerting pressure on it. Check the backrest tilt before starting the engine.
- Adjust the extendable seat cushion so that the thighs rest on it to just above the knee. A rule of thumb is that there should be two to three fingers’ clearance between the seat edge and the hollow of the knee.
- The lumbar support has been adjusted when the lumbar part of the back is supported in its natural shape.
- The seat’s side bolsters should fit so snugly to the body that the upper body is supported comfortably at the side without being restricted.
- Adjust the upper edge of the headrest to the same height as the top of the head. The distance to the head should be approximately 2cm.
More essential tips for preventing back pain in cars
1 Know how to identify a good seat
A good seat may not immediately seem all that comfortable, says Frank Beermann, the Director of Industrial Design for Recaro. “It will have a light and very rigid core structure, and that structure should be shaped to promote the best possible posture of the human vertebrae.”
You don’t want a soft, squishy seat that’s suspended with springs, says Beermann, as the driver will slump down into it; rather, one that will maintain its shape even after hours and hours of driving.
The company supplies car seats to the likes of Aston Martin, Audi, Honda, Mercedes and many more besides. Its latest seat, the Sports Seat Platform, has a carbon fibre shell that’s shaped to give the best curve to a driver’s spine, whilst its padding and aesthetic cladding can be personalised by the car maker, so that a car manufacturer can have it blend seamlessly with its interior décor.
You don’t want a soft, squishy seat that’s suspended with springs, as the driver will slump down into it
Every driver or car maker will have their personal preference, but Beermann says the company likes to cover the side bolsters of a seat in leather, as it’s hard wearing and makes it easier to climb in and out of the seat.
As for the centre section, he thinks that Alcantara is a good alternative to leather, as it’s warm to the touch in winter weather but breathes well and grips a driver in place as a car takes a corner.
Beermann says drivers should always ensure they can comfortably reach all the controls, such as pedals, gearlever and steering wheel. Then check that the seat adapts to their body, through extra features such as height and tilt adjustment, an extendable seat squab and lumbar and bolster adjustment. And finally, a influencing factor for comfort on long trips is the cabin environment, including the general layout of the switchgear and the easy use of the climate control system.
2 Try before you buy
Loatey says the most common problems that drivers suffer from are lower back pain, sciatica – an irritation of the sciatic nerve that can lead to numb legs – and a stiff neck.
Yet in his experience, often it’s the make and model of car, rather than the act of sitting behind the wheel, that leads to problems for patients. “Interestingly, we often see patients who will say something along the lines of, ‘It’s bad in my car, but when I drive my van I don’t get any problems’”
This is often the case with someone who owns an SUV and another, more sporty type of car. Loatey puts it down to the elevated driving position that SUVs, MPVs and vans offer, and says drivers should always try a car for size in the showroom, then take it for a test drive, before they buy it.
A comfortable seat will position the hips higher than the knees, support the shoulder blades and offer a wide range of adjustment
A comfortable seat will position the hips higher than the knees, support the shoulder blades and offer a wide range of adjustment.
“Driving it will reveal whether you’re truly comfortable. You should be able to reach the steering wheel yet still have a bend in your elbows, looking at the mirrors should just be a simple eye movement rather than a head movement and it should be easy to depress all the pedals, especially the clutch, without lifting yourself from the seat.” Often, says Loatey, it’s the small things that drivers do repetitively that contribute most to discomfort.
3 Prevent discomfort while on the road
Richi Loatey says drivers travelling long distances should take a break every couple of hours. A driver should break up their journey and do stretches to keep themselves moving.
Simple but effective exercises when in the car and stuck in traffic include buttock clenches, side bends and seat braces – “pushing your hands into the steering wheel and back into the seat” – and shoulder shrugs, with a five second hold, as well as shoulder circles.
Steer clear of tight clothing and shoes with high heels. You wouldn’t wear them when gardening so why wear them in the car?
It’s also a good idea to steer clear of tight clothing and shoes with high heels. You wouldn’t wear them when gardening, as you need freedom of movement, so why wear them in the car? Loatey suggests keeping a practical pair of flat shoes in the car if you regularly wear high-heels.
Coming soon: the intelligent car seat
Recaro’s next area of development is the Intelligent Seat. Beermann says the company has developed prototypes that use sensors placed in the back of the seat to monitor the driver’s body temperature and heart rate. These mean the seat effectively senses when a driver is getting drowsy and can massage the body to stimulate blood flow, or raise or lower the temperature.
The intelligent seat can also work in conjunction with other safety systems to alert the driver of the dangers and need to take a break. Ford has shown a similar concept.