Susan Holbert was driving to the post office on her lunch hour when she struck another car and her air bag inflated, blowing her hands off the steering wheel.
One arm struck her face, and both arms were bruised and burned by friction from the bag.
“My arms were in a bandage for over a week. It looked awful. It looked like I had gangrene. It was painful,” the Charleston woman said. “I still have scars from where I was burned from the air bag.”
Holbert had been holding the steering wheel in the standard 10-and-2 o’clock position taught in driver’s ed for generations.
With air bags now standard equipment, the American Automobile Association this week recommended that drivers hold their hands at 9 and 3 o’clock - or even lower - in order to keep their grip when the bag inflates.
“You can keep your hands on the wheel and potentially steer around some obstacle in front of you, potentially avoiding a subsequent crash,” said Barbara Crystal, a spokeswoman at AAA headquarters in Heathrow, Fla.
Drivers can also avoid cuts from jewelry on their hands or arms if their arms are positioned lower, she said. They should also sit farther back to avoid chest injuries from the air bag, the AAA said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not recommend any particular hand position, said spokesman Tim Hurd in Washington. But he said 9-and-3 may be more tiring for drivers.
“The argument for having your hands at a 10-and-2 position is that it gives good control of the wheel. It’s a natural way to put your hands,” Hurd said. “The balance is between driving every day and the remote chance the air bag will deploy.”
Chuck Seawood, a driver education teacher at Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, Kan., said a 9-and-3 grip might be too difficult in some cars because the crossbar - which holds the air bag - is too wide.
Seawood, who has been teaching driver’s ed for 31 years, said the 9-and-3 position is good for turning the wheel quickly. He teaches both positions to students, explaining the pros and cons.
Getting drivers to change won’t be easy.
Joyce Mingus of Phoenix, who commutes a total of 70 miles each day to her job as a hairdresser and drives with her hands “all over the place,” said she may follow the new guidelines because she has a car with an air bag. However, she said, “I probably would end up going back into my old habits.”
Frank Addington Jr. of Winfield, W.Va., said he probably will not switch from his usual 9-and-12: “I’ve been driving 12 years and it would be hard for me to get in that habit.”
Carol Caldwell of Northfield, Mass., whose car does not have an air bag, said she uses various positions, depending on the length of her trip.
“Ten-and-two is when I’m in a more tense situation,” she said. “I would think it would be impossible to use one position all the time.”
The AAA also recommended that drivers in cars with anti-lock brakes disregard what they learned in driver’s ed about pumping the brake pedal to prevent the wheels from locking up.
The computer in the anti-lock brakes is designed to do all the pumping, Crystal said.
Also, drivers with anti-lock brakes no longer need to steer into the skid, “because your car isn’t skidding with ABS brakes,” she said.