Do I Have to Sit on a Cushion to Drive It?

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My friend, Kristy, who stands at all of 5’ tall on a good day, in the morning, asked me to explore this topic. Being of average stature myself, this is one aspect of driving a car that I’ve never had to consider. I’ve yet to meet a car that had no possible combination of seat + steering wheel adjustment to enable me to reach the gas and brake pedals. I can always reach. Every time. But not so for everyone.

Tall and short drivers

It is with Kristy’s words in mind that I set out to explore this topic. Bearing in mind, all kinds of modifications and augmentations can be accomplished on a vehicle of your choice. From pedal extensions, hand controls, raised floor and special seat adaptations, a certified mechanic can help you fit your car to, well, you. But which vehicles are the best place to start in seeking something for a diminutive driver?

I wouldn’t want to be a designer for vehicle interiors. What, with the pressure for sleek to meet spacious to meet function to meet comfort to meet cost effectiveness…. I hope those designers are paid enough for their troubles. Add to that, an increasing amount of technology added to the dashboard, but in a way that must be functional- for those among us with short arms. Straining to reach anything is not fun and, especially when driving, can be very dangerous.

Visibility. Reach. Safety. These are the three keys to making sure a vehicle is the right fit, literally, for you. Visibility over the steering wheel and dash is obvious. Your eye level should be above the top of the wheel, not looking strategically through it. But also make sure that the beltline (this is basically the line along the side of the car where the metal of the door meets the glass of the car’s window) is not too high. In the last few years, as safety requirements have mandated thicker window pillars and more structural metal into the cabin of cars, it has meant that windows have gotten a bit smaller in most cars.

Reaching the gas and brake pedals are your next concern. Fortunately, there are a growing number of adjustments that can be made to positioning and comfort of the driver’s seats in cars today. It is critical to have proper positioning in order to react quickly in case of an emergency, where split seconds count. Positioning a good seat correctly will be of more value to you than having an amazing seat that isn’t set properly. Set it high enough, and reclined so that your back and shoulders bear some of your weight into the back of the seat. You should be sitting on the back of your thighs, not your tailbone- unless you want back pain. As for reaching the pedals, you should be able to pivot easily between the gas and brake, leaving your heel on the floor and not have to lift your whole leg to move between the two. Some newer models are even designed with moveable pedals, which sounds like something that my friend Kristy would be over the moon about.

When a driver is an ideal distance from the steering wheel, they are much safer. Experts say that anything closer than 10” puts a driver into an awkward and unsafe steering position, not to mention the damage that an airbag deployed at a speed of 300 km/hour towards would cause to your chin and face. Don’t think that you’ll outsmart that problem by disabling your airbag, because all that will do is compromise your safety even more. Ideally, a driver should be 10-12” from the wheel. Even better, look for telescoping steering wheel; they are becoming more popular in more than just the Audi A4s.

After a quick survey of a few “Top Ten Cars for Short People” lists online, there emerges a few makes of car that keep showing up as the best for short people- according to criteria around comfort and safety. You may want to test drive some of these gems:

  • Honda Accord
  • Toyota Sienna
  • Lexus ES & LS
  • Subaru Forester
  • Kia Soul
  • BMW 3 and 5 series

The Kia Soul deserves special mention. Its boxiness affords it a roomy interior, which suits taller folks and the need for space. It also has lots of glass to its windows, which means that it has higher visibility than the average vehicle.

Of course, your body needs to choose your car. A test drive or two is critical if you find yourself facing the same challenges that Kristy does. Add to the abovementioned items the following: Can I reach the back lift gate to close it? Does it have a back-up camera to help me see what’s behind me? Can I reach the touch screen? Is it easy to get up into the vehicle (especially a truck)?

I don’t pretend to understand the issues that my short friends deal with when it comes to driving. But at least, I am a little more aware now. Thanks, Kristy, for speaking up. Best of luck on that next car purchase.