Driving on slippery roads

By: Kath Heiman

According to safety experts, times are a-changing when it comes to maintaining grip offroad.

Driving on slippery roads
It’s interesting to find that – despite being a driver for 27 years – some things that I thought I knew for certain may still be open for review

Is it "10-to-2" or "¼ to 3"?

When we spend a lot of time behind the wheel, we should know what to do with our hands.

As a general principle, we’d probably all accept that our obligation is keep them on the steering wheel unless we’re changing gear. But a casual glance in the cockpit of our fellow drivers will soon demonstrate that driver practice varies considerably. Casual one-handed drivers abound, as do those with mobile phones glued to their palms (despite routine insistence by police and road traffic authorities against this practice). I won’t labour this point – you know what I’m talking about.

For me, there’s little risk that I’ll be allowed to let my hands to drift too far from the wheel. The simple fact is that my behaviour is usually dictated by my four-year-old daughter who is guaranteed to shout "both hands on the handlebars!" (her name for steering wheel) any time my hands begin to float towards a travel mug or a muesli bar.

Despite this on-board control, I did find myself having to review my steering grip habits a few weeks back after negotiating a winding road on a slippery surface. As our rig grappled for traction, the old driver’s maxim "10-to-2 and straighten your thumbs" came to the fore.  But is my thinking out of date?

Many of us have grown up knowing that, while a "¼-to-3" hand grip technique is suitable for good sealed roads, a "10-to-2" hand grip may offer a more effective way to exert maximum leverage on the wheel on unsealed and uneven surfaces. The logic is that this higher grip allows for better control of the wheel with less force and a smoother action.

What may have escaped our attention is that the "10-to-2" technique dates from an era, before power steering, when turning the wheel could require significant effort in challenging road conditions. In these days of power assisted steering and airbags, however, the principles have moved on, according to the American National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The association found that since airbags have become commonplace, the "10-to-2" grip has shown to increase the risk of wrist and arm factures when wheel-mounted airbags deploy, causing the driver to fling their arms into their face, rear view mirror or into the A-pillar. To avoid this, many safety advocates are now recommending the "¼-to-3" hand grip as a universal technique — on road or offroad. This gets the hands out of the way but still enables the driver to retain control.

That sounds logical.

While I will give this issue some further thought before I settle on my own preferred style, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed with the advent of new technology is the risks associated with "lazy thumbs". By this I mean allowing your thumbs to grip the inside of the wheel rim. This may feel comfy, but if the front wheels hit a rut or rock at an angle, the steering wheel could spin, breaking your grip and resulting in the spokes dislocating or breaking your thumbs. This risk has probably been moderated by power steering, but I doubt it’s been entirely eliminated. 

It’s interesting to find that – despite being a driver for 27 years – some things that I thought I knew for certain may still be open for review. The fact is that, as drivers, there’s never a good time to become complacent.

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