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Driving tips for the vertically challenged

If you're short like me, you need to take special care in adjusting your seating position

By Katie Roebuck

The Toyota Corolla fits both short and tall drivers. A newly redesigned 2009 LE model is shown.If you're anything like me, driving can be a challenge. It's not because I hate bad-weather driving or commuting. It's because I'm 5'4" tall and I don't fit in most cars -- not properly and safely, at least.

Most of the time I have to sit way too close to the steering wheel in order to have my short legs touch the pedals. I know I'm not the only one; there are many more women (and some men) who are like me, where we need a step-stool to get in anything larger than a sedan.

It's been well documented that air bags can save your life but can also kill you in the wrong situation. For the short-statured, this is a higher risk because we generally have to sit much closer to the steering wheel, which means that in the event of an accident, we would be hit by the air bag as it expands instead of when it starts to deflate as we're meant to. The airbag deploys so fast, if you're too close to it, it'll do more damage than good, and can kill someone.

Now for the good news! Here are some tips to make sure you're safer in your car when you're one of those "No-See'ems" (meaning the top of your head can't be seen over the headrest by other drivers, so it looks from behind like there's no driver). All these suggestions are for those who don't have, or can't afford, cars with eight-way power adjustable seating, telescoping steering wheels and adjustable pedals. All these items are great, along with side-impact air bags, but can carry a hefty price tag, especially in smaller cars.

1) Make sure the back of the seat is as upright as you can comfortably get it. This will help you see over the hood of your car better and is the start of getting the best driver's position in your car. If you have adjustable seats, raise your seat up (not forward) so you can see more clearly over the front of your car. Dashboards should not be at eye level!

2) Put your arms out in front of you and rest them on the steering wheel; your wrists should be resting on the top of the steering wheel -- not your fingers, not your elbows -- your wrists. This will help make sure you can still reach the steering wheel and get a full range of motion without being too close. Adjust the steering wheel to accommodate you, not the other way around -- there's usually a little unlocking device on the steering column that will allow you to move it up and down, and in and out if you have a newer car with a telescoping wheel. You should have at least five to eight inches between the closest part of your body and the steering wheel. Twelve inches is safest.

3) If you've spent the big bucks and have a car with adjustable brake pedals -- good for you! Use these to your advantage. Adjust your steering wheel so you sit as far away from it as possible, and then move the pedals towards you so you can reach the brakes properly.

If you don't have a car with adjustable pedals, stretch out your knee (either one) so your foot is on the floor behind the brake pedal -- that's also called the firewall. If you can touch the firewall and still have your knee slightly bent, then your legs are in a good position. Now if you're like me, where my legs are shorter than my arms, this is only an added item -- the greater distance of your chest (and major organs) from the steering wheel is more important than having your feet touching the firewall.

Either way, with or without fancy foot pedals, your feet should still be able to push the brake pedal to the floor without using your tippy-toes, otherwise you won't be able to stop properly in case of emergency.

4) Make sure that the seat belt goes across your chest without cutting into your neck. If you don't have a car with adjustable seat belts (where it attaches to the car near your shoulder) or the ability to raise the height of your seat, buy a special clip. It attaches to the seat belt near where it locks in and you can adjust it so it fits you properly.

5) Always make sure you adjust your mirrors after you move your seat. And if you were a big spender, don't forget to program your memory seat position in the car.

As always, the more money you spend, the easier it is to find a car that fits you. A few years ago, my family found that having adjustable seating was very necessary, especially when we were looking for a car to accommodate both myself at 5'4" and my brother who is a full foot taller. (We eventually decided on a Toyota Corolla, which fit both of us.)

But if you're like me and it's the basic model car all the way, use these tips to keep you safe in your car and make you a safer driver.

.© Katie Roebuck is a daily commuter currently living in Calgary, AB. In 2007, she replaced that original, one-size-fits-all 2005 Toyota Corolla with a 2008 model.

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