Motoring: Back where you belong: Are you sitting comfortably? If not, you have the wrong car, says Phil Llewellin

Driving is detrimental to the health of the spine, says Bryan McIlwraith, an osteopath based in Inverness whose interest in cars extends to being a keen amateur mechanic and chairman of the Highland Classic Motor Club. He says that 'dreadful driving positions' are factors that his otherwise beloved 1957 Wolseley 15/50 and 1972 Triumph Stag have in common.

Mr McIlwraith's paper on this important aspect of the car-driver relationship appeared in the British Osteopathic Journal about the time that I was visiting Edmund Ward at the pioneering Institute for Consumer Ergonomics (ICE) in Loughborough, Leicestershire. I wanted to find out more about the seats that support my 53-year-old bones for 50,000 miles a year.

Many of the world's biggest car manufacturers have consulted ICE in its 24 years of operation. And Mr Ward and his colleagues have published a free, 14-point checklist that should help to reduce the cost of back pain in Britain (81 million working days lost in 1992). Not all of this can be put down to driving, of course, but ICE's research shows that people who remain seated for long periods suffer almost as much as those whose work involves a lot of lifting.

Understandably, but unfortunately, seat design is based largely on statistics called 'percentiles', which are used to characterise the average driver. The problem is that people's proportions vary. Here I speak with considerable authority, being a 79 percentile in terms of overall height - meaning that I am taller than 79 per cent of the British adult male population - but a 96 percentile from bum to scalp. Legs that get a mere 45 percentile rating are attached to one of the longest bodies in the land. The inevitable headroom problem is frequently exacerbated by the intrusive surround for a sliding sunroof, so I often adopt tactics highlighted in Mr McIlwraith's report.

'In addition to tilting the seat back, the tall driver tends to move the hips forward on the seat squab and allow the lumbar spine to roll backwards into flexion,' he says. 'In other words, they deliberately slide into a slouched position.'

The design of some car seats is suspect, too. 'To give the illusion of a roomy interior, designers shorten the seat squab by three or four centimetres, which, although it may not sound a lot, is the difference between support or lack of it for the thighs. Some manufacturers proudly proclaim that their seats have a lumbar support. Unfortunately, the seat comes in one size, but humans do not . . .'

Plenty of adjustment is one of the keys to a satisfactory seat, Mr Ward says. This enables such elements as height, reach and rake to be tailored to bring the driver closer to the ideal position. But that's not all: 'Avoiding sitting still for a long time is one of the best ways to prevent the lower back becoming painful. However, it is difficult to imagine drivers taking an exercise break every 45 minutes, so the alternative is to change your posture while retaining the driving position's essential elements. The ability to do that - and the ease with which the seat can be adjusted while on the move - are factors that should be considered when choosing a car.'

A made-to-measure seat would be very expensive, but the next best thing is offered by Recaro, which has specialised in car seats since 1963. It uses a modular technique to assemble seats that cater for different heights, weights, thigh lengths, and so forth. Prices range from pounds 665 to pounds 840.

The personal nature of the relationship between driver and seat makes it difficult to deliver balanced verdicts on individual makes and models: what could have been tailor-made for hefty Mr Jones may be purgatory on wheels for petite Miss Smith. This was confirmed as Mr Ward ran through his checklist while I sat in 10 different cars.

Points covered by the checklist include seat height ('Can you get a clenched fist between the top of your head and the roof?'), the height of the head restraint, the backrest's height and width, the extent and shape of any lumbar support, and the relationship between seat, steering wheel and pedals. What the experts call 'pedal offset' is encountered in many small cars where space-saving design constraints bring the offside wheel arch into the space where the driver's right foot should be. Twisting the foot to reach the accelerator initiates a series of distortions that extend all the way to the spine.

A car's size and status are not trustworthy guides. A Rolls-Royce Silver Spur offered much less headroom than the sporty Peugeot 106 Rallye which would almost have fitted in its boot. ICE's caveat about materials that may cause the body to slip and slump argued against the leather upholstery in the Rolls and in a Ferrari 348 Spider. The tiny Fiat Cinquecento's seatback mechanism was more convenient to locate and operate than its counterparts in the bigger and much more expensive Ford Mondeo Ghia and Mercedes C180. A lever reached with the left hand made fore-and-aft adjustment in a Vauxhall Cavalier LS easier than in the Rover 623iS, whose central bar involves more of a stretch. The lofty Nissan Terrano SLX's lumbar support suited my back better than most. The Toyota Carina XLi scored points for having an adjustable lumbar support - but lost them because it was awkward to operate. And so forth.

My advice is to use ICE's checklist when shopping for a car. Thus, unsuitable contenders can be dismissed in the showroom. If you go to the next stage, a road test, think about the seat during the proverbial run round the block, the importance of which is underlined by Mr McIlwraith. 'Any car salesman,' he says, 'will tell you many customers choose a car without test driving it. The most important factor for many people is the relative trade-in value of their old car. This is a ludicrous approach that seems to rest on the assumption that all cars are more or less equal, which is clearly not the case.'

ICE Ergonomics, Swingbridge Road, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 0JB (0509 236161). Recaro Ltd, Unit K, Riverside Industrial Estate, Tamworth, Staffordshire B78 3RW (0827 261997).

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Commercial Litigation

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

    BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Day In a Page

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride