Wednesday, February 22, 2012 17:49
“You’re crushing my canaries!” My driving students, whether car-company test drivers or teens on their first lesson, often hear me shout some version of that phrase. All are first told to hold the steering wheel with a gentle, light touch: “As if holding a bird.”
A white-knuckle grip does several bad things. The driver’s biceps, trapezius and neck muscles are rigid. Steering motions are made with a Heisman Trophy-style straight arm. Small, precise steering inputs are impossible. Passengers get queasy or frightened.
White-knuckling performance drivers can’t feel what the front tires are doing. The car could be on the edge of adhesion or miles away. I can feel more from the right seat than do these inexperienced, untrained drivers.
For racers, vibration transmitted through stiff muscles produces blurry vision or what Wile E. Coyote sees after taking an Acme anvil to the head. (When I tested a Reynard 95I CART Indy car, regular driver Parker Johnstone warned that I’d see several rotating images in bumpy corners. “Don’t try to drive them all,” said Johnstone. “Just pick one and drive it.”)
I make white-knucklers repeatedly open their grip. Sometimes, I require they hold the steering wheel with just their fingertips. I’ve even massaged trapezius muscles in an effort to get drivers to relax.
White-knucklers often are concentrating so hard that they fail to breath. One student was very rough with the wheel, so I glanced at his hands: white knuckles. Then I noticed his face was turning blue. “Sir, let’s slow down and take a breather,” said I. “I’m not breathing!” said my student. “Yeah, I know,” I responded. “And you’ve squeezed the intestines out of the bird!”