The fundamentals of driving a car are pretty basic - step on the accelerator, car speeds up; stand on the brake, car slows down; turn the steering wheel to the left or right, car changes direction. So why is it that people get themselves into trouble and lose control of their car while performing these simple tasks?
While I am not racing, I perform driver training duties for DriveSkill International and it amazes me the number of people who come through our course who just don't know how to hold or turn their car's steering wheel. It's usually not their fault - they have probably never been taught a correct method.
The majority of steering problems that I see in drivers started in their learner driver days when most instructors seem to teach the "push-pull" or "shuffle" method. They preach that arms and hands should never be crossed over and that each hand covers its own half of the wheel.
This results in - for example, when taking a left corner - the right hand pushing the wheel up to 12 o'clock while the left hand slides down towards the 6 o'clock position. The right hand now slides down to 6 o'clock in readiness to push the wheel back up to 12 o'clock, and so the process continues (or is reversed to turn the other way). Steering should not be this complicated. "Push-pull" was invented in the days when power steering was not available and the very heavy steering necessitated such a method.
A good steering technique starts with the correct driving position. This should be as low as possible with the seat back upright. You should be sitting close enough to the wheel that you have full control. Too many people sit too far from the wheel and end up with a straight arm driving position which gives very little power to turn the wheel and also very tired arms after long periods of driving.
A good way of judging the correct position is to lay your arm straight out over the wheel with your shoulders in their normal position. When you have done this look at what point the top of the wheel touches your arm. If you are in the correct position your wrist area is resting on the wheel. From this position steering should become far less tiring.
Next are the correct positions of your hands on the wheel. Most people have heard of and use the 10 to 2 position. This is okay, but the 9 to 3 position is much better and is my preferred option. It's logical really, as at this position your hands are opposite each other and at the widest diameter of the wheel, giving you the benefit of less steering effort.
This also eliminates the chance of inadvertently steering too acutely, as both hands are never on the same side of the wheel pulling in the same direction. One is always pushing and one pulling. From this position the wheel can be turned freely through nearly 180 degrees without you having to let go of the wheel. This will get you through most corners on a country road and you always know where the wheels are pointing because your hands have never come off the wheel.
Yes, your arms will get crossed over but I've never understood why so many people think that this will cause a problem. If you happen to be driving through the city and come across a 90 degree corner - or perhaps a hairpin on a country road - a variation called "leading hand" method should be employed.
For example, on a left hand turn, this requires that the leading hand (ie left hand) be brought across to grab the wheel just above the right hand and then pull to the left. The right hand remains stationary until it is again opposite the left, where you can then hold the wheel and turn as usual. This method gives you nearly a full turn of lock and again you have a good balance where your hands are versus where the road wheels are pointing. This is an important relationship to have because if correction of the steering wheel is ever required (to arrest an oversteer slide, for example), it is imperative that you can accurately position the road wheels.
Controlling cars in an oversteer (rear wheel slide) or understeer (front wheel slide) can be a complex task and is something that I will cover in a future article. However, the steering method employed is very important to this.
Let's say that you have taken a left hand corner too fast and the back of the car starts to slide. It is important that you act quickly but in a controlled manner. Assuming that my steering method explained above has been employed, your hands will never have been taken off the wheel, which will be turned to the left. Road vision and wheels will be similarly directed. As the car starts to slide, correction will be needed and this should take the form of steering the wheels to the right, in the direction of the skid. The amount of opposite lock required will depend on how much angle the car has relative to the road. You must be looking at where you want the car to go (usually around the corner) and steering to this point. If you catch the slide and the car straightens up, obviously the steering will also have to be straightened up but this in effect will be in the direction of the road. Effectively you steer to where you are looking.
If the steering is not directed to where you want to go, inevitably the car will either spin out of control or be over-corrected and spin in the opposite direction with a fair amount of violence (fish tailing). An over-correction will require a lot of skill and rapid steering to correct. As you can see, it is vital in this circumstance to have a good understanding of where the road wheels are pointed; steering with a constant hand method and never shuffling gives you this ability.
On occasions it may take more than one armful of opposite lock (180 degrees) to correct the car. Once again in the case of a left-hand corner and the car oversteering, it will become necessary to remove one hand, which will be the right hand as the left hand pushes the wheel to the right. The right hand will cross over the left hand and hold the wheel where it would originally have been. This will allow you the potential of over a full turn of lock. The left hand should remain in place (even if only by the thumb) in readiness for the wheel to straighten back up as the car corrects. This will maintain your bearing on the direction of the road wheels and eliminates confusion as to where your hands should be placed as you wind lock back off.
This is all very easy to talk about, but in the heat of the moment you do not have a lot of time to think about all these things - it is very easy to get it wrong. Remember that no amount of wheel twirling will control a car that is out of control, so approach your driving sensibly and keep any heroics to a racetrack where the consequences of making a mistake are not so high.