Driving a vehicle is full of challenges for short people – challenges which can affect your safety. While you can learn to live with the difficulties, you’ll be much safer if you address them head on.
For a short driver, the most dangerous time of day is at dusk or dawn when the sun is low in the sky. The vehicle’s sun visor is supposed to block the glaring sun but it simply doesn’t work unless you are tall enough. Taller drivers will have their eyes shaded by the visor while you have the full force of the sun in your eyes.
If you’re hoping to find an opaque visor extender, you’ll have a difficult time finding one. Most auto parts retailers offer transparent-colored extensions that are supposed to work like sunglasses, but even with sunglasses you would not stare directly at the sun.
The safest option is to wear a hat with a visor. You can adjust the visor to block the sun from almost any angle. You may have a bad hair day but you will be much safer for it.
Another issue is the ability to see the nose of your vehicle when judging distance, especially when parking or pulling up behind someone. If you are sitting too low, you can’t see the front of your vehicle and you’ll end up taking a pot shot guess at the distance. Guess wrong and you might rear-end someone at a red light, or hit something while parking.
The steering wheel is another visual obstacle for a short driver with an older model vehicle. The top of the steering wheel may be directly in front of your eyes, or you may even be looking through the steering wheel rather than over the top of it.
Newer model vehicles have adjustable steering wheels and height-adjustable seats, allowing you to position yourself for optimum visibility. If you drive an older model vehicle, you should use a seat cushion to boost you up so that you can clearly see the nose of your vehicle.
Another serious issue for short people is the headrest. It’s not always made to adjust to a shorter person and you may find your head tilted at an awkward angle.
The primary purpose of the headrest is to prevent whiplash in the event of an accident. However, neck injuries can also occur if the headrest is not properly positioned for you.
Some headrests have a very pronounced bulge that can cause your head to be in the wrong position if you are short. The center of the headrest should support the center of the back of your head, without pushing your head forward or forcing your head into an unnatural tilt, so that your head and body remain straight during an accident.
If the bulge in the headrest barely touches the top of your head, this can cause a neck injury during an accident. Your back and shoulders are pushed back into the seat, but your head cannot stay in a straight line with your body as was intended. Instead, the top of your head is pushed forward by the headrest bulge, forcing your chin down into your chest.
In addition, if the headrest causes your head to tilt forward during normal driving, you lose the ability to easily turn your head to keep an eye on surrounding traffic.
Look for a vehicle with an adjustable headrest that tilts as well as raises and lowers. If your existing vehicle doesn’t give proper support to your head and neck, your local junkyard may have a headrest that offers better support.
As an alternative, you can pop the headrest out and turn it backward to avoid the bulge. If the headrest doesn’t touch the back of your head in the altered position, you can bind towels to the headrest until you’ve achieved the proper support for safety.
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Another safety issue is your distance from the air bag. Tall drivers sit farther back and are less impacted by the air bag during an accident. Short drivers sit very close to the air bag and can be injured by the air bag itself during an accident.
The air bag is not a cushy pillow. It blasts from the dashboard or steering wheel at up to 200 miles per hour and if you are sitting too close to it, you can suffer air bag injuries.
A 2009 brochure published by the U. S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated that while seat belts and air bags prevent 75% of head injuries and 66% of chest injuries, a small percentage of people die from injuries caused by the air bags themselves.
The one common denominator in all of the deaths was the person’s proximity to the air bag when it opened. Short drivers don’t always have the luxury of moving the seat far enough back for an air bag safety zone. You have to be able to reach the floor pedals to drive.
On-off air bag switches are recommended if it is not possible for you to maintain a distance of 10 inches between the center of your breastbone and the air bag. While 2-3 inches is the primary risk zone, 10 inches allows for a safety margin.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety determined that two out of three short women drivers already position themselves at least 10 inches from the air bag, though the findings did vary depending on vehicle size. They found that 40% of short women driving medium to large vehicles did sit closer than 10 inches, compared to 27% who drove small cars.
On-off switches allow you to disable the air bag if you are at high risk of air bag injury. In order to get an on-off switch, you must fill out an official NHTSA request form. Once approved, the NHTSA will send you an authorization letter which you can take to a dealership or repair shop. They cannot legally install the switch without proper authorization. However, you will no longer be able to get an on-off switch after September 1, 2012. You can get more information about on-off switches at the nhtsa.gov website.
Before you apply for an on-off switch, consider other ways of putting distance between you and the air bag. Some newer vehicles come with foot pedals that are adjustable for the length of your legs. Pedal extenders are available for older vehicles, though their safety has not been studied.
Seat Belt and Shoulder Strap
Your seat belt should fit snugly across your pelvis, and the shoulder strap should cross over your shoulder. For a short person, the shoulder strap can end up across your neck which can cause serious injuries during an accident.
If your shoulder strap does not have an adjustment to accommodate you, consider investing in a seat belt adjuster. There are a variety of sturdy styles that go far beyond the cheap plastic clips, including some made for children which may be a good choice for a small adult.
Whichever style you choose, make sure it has been crash-tested for safety. If your local auto parts store does not offer a good variety, you can find one online by searching for “seatbelt adjuster.”