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Car shopping for petites

I recently bought a new car. And with all the research that goes into such a major purchase, I couldn’t help but notice that it was all geared towards taller drivers — mostly men. For those of us women who are significantly shorter than the average, jokes about “headless drivers” abound. A car is a major purchase for most of us, and one that we don’t want to take lightly. But finding one that is comfortable to drive when you’re a petite woman is a major hassle.

Cars are getting bigger

Want proof that cars are being designed for taller and taller people? Here’s a short history of the cars I’ve owned in my life:

My first car was a 1998 Honda Civic, which I absolutely LOVED. I had perfect sightlines, the headrest actually hit my head at the right height, and everything just fit me like a glove. I drove this baby for twelve wonderful years.

My next car was a 2010 Mazda 3. It was one of the most popular cars of the decade, especially among women, and was billed as one of the best cars for female drivers for several years in a row:

However, it just wasn’t nearly as ergonomic for me as my Civic was. For one thing, updated safety standards led to that awful inward-pointing headrest that would push my head forward at a horrible angle. I had next to no blind spot visibility thanks to the sleeker, rounded body and higher beltline. And the small details failed: With the seat as far forward as I needed it to be to reach the pedals and steering wheel, I couldn’t do things like reach a drink in my cup holder.

Despite that, I did quite like the Mazda 3. But I was unfortunately involved in a pretty serious car accident a couple of months ago, the details of which I won’t go into here. I escaped relatively unscathed, thank goodness, proving that while the car may not have been fully comfortable, at least it was pretty darn safe. But my car, alas, was totalled. So I started shopping for a replacement.

I test drove a lot of cars, including the updated versions of both the Civic and the Mazda 3, as well as competitors from Toyota, Kia and Nissan. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I fell in love with a Volkswagen, a car I never thought I’d buy in a gazillion years (and yes, I had a little trouble explaining it to my mom). But here it is, my new baby: A 2016 Volkswagen Jetta:

It’s a great car. Fun to drive. Solid on the road. Tons of convenient features for someone who likes to ski. Good space for road trips. Except… well, look at that seat. Now look at me. See the problem?

Yep, that’s the lowest position for that headrest. Yep, that’s as high as the seat goes. I didn’t get any smaller since 1998. But the cars sure got bigger.

When I posted this photo on social media, one of my friends was quick to comment that he wasn’t sure if it was a Jetta because “you look super tiny in it”. I had to reply that it’s a feature of the driver, not the car.

And, believe it or not, out of every car I test drove, this one actually fit me the best.

An unaddressed need

We petite female drivers have some pretty specific considerations in terms of safety and comfort that the automotive industry is doing a poor job addressing. A report a few years ago in the Telegraph outlined the problem:

Dr Morris says car makers optimise safety around the 50th percentile male to comply with crash-test rules – with clear consequences when designing the rest of the car.

His colleague Ruth Welsh, who led the study, says: “Height is not the only factor. Just as crucial is arm or leg length, which dictate seat adjustment, potentially reducing the driver’s field of vision and being able to see around the A or B pillars.” Which explains why car makers seldom state the maximum and minimum driver height that their products can accommodate.

Equally important for shorter drivers, says Welsh, is the ability to sit sufficiently far from the airbag to avoid injury if it detonates – and to benefit from the airbag being deployed when the driver comes into contact with it. Loughborough recommends a minimum of 25cm (10in) from wheel to chest.

“Finding a car for smaller people is a challenge,” says Welsh. “Unfortunately, when a car does fit, the rest of it is often smaller too.”

The industry is at fault all across the board. Reports show that women play a leading role in as many as 85% of all car-purchasing decisions. And yet, there are next to no female executives at automotive companies. Auto magazines and trade shows are marketed to, and organized by, men. Car guide writers and auto reviewers are almost exclusively men. Automotive designers are almost all men. People who make those critical decisions on what is considered to be trendy or in style when it comes to car design are — you guessed it — men.

A Google search for cars suitable for short drivers turns up only a handful of results, most of which are written for both tall and short drivers — with, predictably, most of the attention being devoted to tall drivers. The writers of these articles are nearly always men, and the cars they recommend for short drivers are rarely, if ever, actually tested by a petite woman. They tend to just recommend luxury cars with a lot of bells and whistles about how adjustable their seats are, which, as any short woman who’s ever gotten behind the wheel knows, is really only the tip of the iceberg.

Ergonomic? Not so fast.

The ergonomics of cars have been carefully designed down to the smallest detail to give drivers a sense of being entirely in control. Everything from the placement of cup holders to the controls on a steering wheel are tested again and again.

The trouble is, all those design considerations prioritize tall drivers. Those of us who are smaller and shorter than the average are left out in the cold. Consider, for example:

  • Seatbacks that are designed to offer neck, back and lumbar support to someone with a taller back will hit in all the wrong spots on a shorter back.
  • Headrests that are designed for men over six feet tall curve inward and hit a short woman uncomfortably at the top of her head, forcing her head and neck unnaturally forward.
  • Steering wheels that cannot be sufficiently lowered to allow a shorter driver to hold it at a natural 90-degree angle mean that driving for any length of time leads to tingly fingers. It also means that the top of the steering wheel might actually block your ability to see out the front of your car.
  • Pedals that don’t come out far enough mean that we have to push the seat too far forward just to reach them.
  • Buttons, mirrors, cupholders, consoles and controls are all designed out of easy or comfortable reach for a shorter driver.

The more expensive cars have more adjustability. But not everyone wants, or can afford, a pricier luxury car. More modestly-priced cars tend to have fewer options to raise the seat, adjust the steering column, or move things around to fit a shorter driver.

As a result, I used to be able to drive for several hours pain-free. These days, even an hour’s drive to the ski hill can leave me with back or neck pain. I’m lucky that I don’t need to commute to work; I get around mostly by public transit, on foot, and — in the summer — by bicycle. So driving, for me, is a luxury. But for many petite women, it’s a necessity — and it’s one that they have to suffer through.

Shorter drivers are at higher risk

What’s worse than all of these comfort considerations is that we petite drivers are actually at the highest safety risk out of everyone. And yet, until a few years ago, the automotive industry didn’t even consider us in their testing.

Airbags are the most well-known and obvious culprit: Study after study has demonstrated that shorter adult drivers who sit closer to the wheel are at the highest risk from airbag deployment injuries. When airbags were new, many manufacturers would suggest disconnecting them if you needed to sit closer than 10 inches from the wheel. These days, airbags deploy with much less force, reducing the risk somewhat. But those of us who need to move the seat closer to reach the steering wheel or the pedals are still at elevated risk levels.

But it’s more than just airbags. Most people know that every car on the market today is put through rigorous crash testing. Few realize that most of that crash testing is done with a dummy called Hybrid III, which is designed to meet the height, weight and body dimensions of the 50th percentile male. Yep, here again, men are first; women are the afterthought.

It took until the late 80s for a 5th percentile female version of Hybrid III to be developed. She’s 4’11”, and has been used regularly in crash tests since the late 90s.

But she’s still an afterthought in testing, there to ensure that cars meet minimum acceptable standards. But they’re not designed for her needs. They’re designed for that 5’10” man.

Many safety features that were added for taller men over the past two decades have actually worsened driving safety for us petite women:

  • Higher beltlines offer improved crumple zones, but at the cost of visibility for shorter drivers. If you can’t see, then you’re a hazard on the road, period.
  • Sun visors designed for taller drivers won’t block the sun at those critical times of day when it’s right in our eyes. This leads to basically driving blind, which, yeah, isn’t so safe.
  • Seatbelts that start too high and therefore cut across a shorter driver’s neck at an awkward angle. My old car’s seatbelt used to make me feel like I was being strangled, and I’d do something very dangerous, which you’re never supposed to do — I’d tuck the top part of the seatbelt behind me. That left me extremely vulnerable in case of a crash. (Luckily, this is one good thing about my new Jetta; the seatbelt adjusts properly to prevent that issue. Someone figured this one out.)
  • Higher seatbacks designed to protect taller drivers in the case of a crash actually limit sightlines and blind spot visibility for us shorter drivers. How am I supposed to look over my shoulder when it’s blocked by a giant wall of upholstery?
  • The worst culprits are those darn headrests — excuse me, head restraints — which are supposed to prevent neck injury in the case of a crash. They are designed to be used by taller men who have their seats somewhat reclined. For us shorter women, who need to have the seatback more upright and who cannot lower the headrests sufficiently, they dig into the top of our heads, forcing them uncomfortably forward in an unnatural, painful position.

The headrest issue is one that’s been debated quite a bit, ever since those higher, inward-tilting head restraints became mandated in most vehicles. Some websites will suggest that you turn the headrests backwards, or take them out altogether and replace them with more comfortable after-market versions. But car safety tests aren’t conducted under those conditions. And remember that crash I referenced above? Yeah, you really don’t want to be messing with your safety. But, for shorter drivers, we are messing with our safety each and every time we get behind the wheel in a car that doesn’t fit us.

A few options for petite drivers

So, given all of this, what’s a petite driver to do? I’m by no means a car buying expert. But, having recently been through the process, here are a few tips I’d offer to my fellow petites:

  • Don’t despair! Comfortable, safe cars may be harder to find when you’re petite. But they’re out there.
  • Test drive, test drive, test drive. Don’t rely on reviews by tall men; try out a car and see if it works for you.
  • Look for a few key features. Narrow down your shortlist by looking for things like tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, and a headrest that adjusts both in height and in angle.
  • Don’t only look at small cars. You may make the reasonable assumption that smaller cars would better fit smaller drivers, but that’s not always the case. Crossover SUVs, for instance, set you higher up on the road, giving you better visibility. What’s more, some mid-sized or larger cars are more full-featured in terms of how much you can adjust them.
  • Prioritize visibility over sleek design. Higher beltlines often lead to poor visibility for us petite drivers. Look for more old-school designs and “boxier” cars, which may not look as cool, but make it easier to see.
  • Consider customization. For people who are extremely petite, all of the above tips may not be enough. Mobility aides normally geared towards wheelchair users or other people with special needs, such as pedal extenders, can be an option for very short drivers as well. Depending on where you live and how tall you are, you may even qualify for government subsidies to help offset some of the costs.

And hey, if you still can’t find a car that works for you, don’t worry: It’s 2016. The era of the driverless car is almost upon us. Soon, it won’t matter how tall or short you are, because we’ll all be chauffeured around by artificial intelligence anyway. So smile!


4 thoughts on “Car shopping for petites

  1. Thank you SO much for your articles on the pain and issues that we have to deal with and should not have to! Now that I’m in my mid 40’s, years of sitting at a desk / chair that’s too high and having my shoulders up has given me trigger points that require regular trips to the chiropractor and physical therapy. The forward head rests are THE WORST. Whenever I have to fly, I’m in pain for days after. Over time, forward head syndrome develops, despite working hard on posture. Same thing with arm rests in cars- can’t use them or my shoulder is raised toward my ear- all bad things for our spine and neck. Thank you for speaking out; I wish more people and manufacturers/ airlines would listen.

  2. My boyfriend once commented on how strange it was that when he (a 6’4″ man) got behind the wheel of the truck after I’d driven it, he’d have to not only adjust every seat position, but also lower the head rest back down. “why do you raise it?” he asked. Because then it’s above my head instead of pushing my head forward. That’s why.

  3. Thank you for doing such a stellar job outlining the ways the auto industry is missing out on he business of a major segment of consumers. I was so excited to test drive the Kia Telluride (ranked #1!) but couldn’t get out of it fast enough. I’d need a chiropractor in residence if I drove that. I guess I’ll keep my comfy Odyssey forever!

  4. it’s crazy to me how few car makers think about shorter drivers. We just looked at a VW Jetta, but though it’s a nice car, the seats are too low — especially the passenger seat, which is not adjustable. We are looking elsewhere but the options seem much more limited than ten years ago.

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