A Driving Instructor's Blog

This latest update comes following a reader question via the Contact Form. The original article was published in 2008.

Ford Focus cockpit

The topic keeps coming back because it is relevant to all learner drivers. When I wrote the original story, DVSA – or DSA, as it was then – had just updated its Internal Guidance Document (DT1) to say:

To ensure uniformity, when conducting car or vocational tests and ADI qualifying examinations, only assess the candidate’s ability to control the vehicle and do not consider it as a fault if, for example, they do not hold the steering wheel at ten to two or quarter to three or if they cross their hands when turning the steering wheel. The assessment should be based on whether the steering is smooth, safe and under control.

The part I’ve highlighted was an addition, and in previous versions of DT1 the steering technique was not mentioned. Even so, no examiners round my way ever failed people for “crossing their hands”. You see, all DVSA was doing with this update was making sure that its examiners were clear on the subject (hence the phrase “[ensuring] uniformity”). Reading between the lines, it seems that there had been complaints about one or two examiners around the country who had been faulting candidates unnecessarily. Reading even deeper, I would surmise that these were ex-ADIs who had carried their ideas about “crossing hands” and “holding the steering wheel properly” across with them when they gave up teaching.

The bottom line is that as long as steering is under control it doesn’t matter how a pupil does it. They can steer with one hand, with their palm, use hand over hand… it simply doesn’t matter. And it hasn’t mattered – not officially, anyway – for a very long time. I emphasise again that the change to DT1 was a clarification and not a major change in policy.

A lot of ADIs and PDIs get hung up on this whole business of  “crossing your hands”. Two versions ago, Driving: The Essential Skills (TES) said:

Turning – When turning the steering wheel, avoid crossing your hands. Except at low speeds, this can reduce your control and can cause an accident. Feed the rim of the steering wheel through your hands. Vary your hand movements according to the amount of lock you want.

This is called the pull-push technique.

TES was not saying that you shouldn’t cross your hands. It just quite correctly pointed out that the rapid steering action that a hand-over-hand method can lead to might give rise to a loss of control at higher speeds. But there is a huge difference in the effect produced by whipping the steering round quickly as you’re turning into a road at 20-30mph compared with the same action at 5-10mph.

The only type of  “crossing hands” that ends up being wrong in almost all circumstances is the one where pupils grip the steering wheel tightly and turn from their shoulders, keeping their hands in a fixed place on the steering wheel. This nearly always results in insufficient lock to get round the corner, resulting in wide turns, or possibly over-steering if the pupil suddenly panics and shifts their grip to get the car round. Just about every learner does it like this on their first lesson.

The last two versions of TES (most recently, 2015) have merely said:

You should

  • place your hands on the steering wheel in a position that’s comfortable and which gives you full control
  • keep your movements steady and smooth
  • turn the steering wheel to turn a corner at the correct time

Personally, I rue the loss of the extra detail in the version before this. I see it as a dumbing down exercise, and far too many people are ready to believe that it’s some sort of admission that the “pull-push” method was bad, when it most definitely wasn’t. The pull-push technique – where steering is achieved by alternately pulling the wheel down with one hand, then changing grip and pushing it with the other – certainly isn’t the only way to steer, and people who can already drive shouldn’t be forced to use it. But for most beginners, who have not yet developed a suitable technique, it should definitely be a starting point for them. It requires hand coordination which, in turn, becomes a foundation for good car control.Playing "keepy-up"

A good analogy would be with a professional footballer. He can play “keepy up” for hours on end because it is an important basic control skill – but you will rarely see him do it on the field. However, the coordination required to do it enables him to do other things during matches that he would otherwise struggle with.

It’s the same with steering. Being able to use pull-push properly is an important foundation skill that drivers should possess, even if they end up rarely using it in favour of a more chav-like style. Once beginners can do pull-push, they can steer easily without going wide on bends and corners. They are less likely to over-steer into kerbs, and are more confident as a result, being able to adjust their steering in a controlled manner. A major drawback to hand-over-hand steering for beginners who know no other way is that they can easily panic and over steer.

The new wording in TES could actually be taken as a mandate for teaching poor steering methods by some instructors, because it’s easier for them and easier for their pupils. Some people are already under the mistaken impression that it’s “coaching” to let people develop bad habits in preference to teaching them properly.

Incidentally, when someone pull-pushes the steering in one direction, the natural return action frequently involves push-pull. They’re not two separate methods like some people seem to believe. It doesn’t matter whether you pull first, or push.

Why shouldn’t I turn (dry steer) the wheel when the car isn’t moving?

Moving the wheel when the car is stationary is called “dry steering”. There’s no rule or law which says you mustn’t do it, and examiners do not mark you on it. However, it is bad practice for several reasons:

  • it can damage your tyres
  • it can damage your steering mechanism
  • it can damage the road surface

Scrunching your tyres over gravel instead of rolling over the road surface leads to more wear. Doing it on glass or nails can easily give you a puncture. The extra strain involved when dry steering leads to more wear in the steering mechanism of your car. And scrunching your tyres on tarmac in hot weather can chew up the surface, which holds water in winter, and which can cause cracks if the water freezes – leading finally to potholes. You’ll get some smart arses telling you they’ve never come across an example where dry steering has caused actual damage, but the reality is that every time someone has to replace a tyre, dry steering will have contributed to its overall wear and tear.

Replacing a tyre is going to cost you a few tens of pounds at the very least. Fixing worn out steering will cost hundreds of pounds. Potholes can cause hundred of pounds worth of damage to your car – plus you pay taxes for them to be (eventually) filled in, so it makes sense not to contribute to their formation.

Except where pupils have a genuine problem and need to dry steer, as the default steering method it is an excuse for laziness and bad driving practices. Dry steering should be discouraged for most drivers, most of the time.

I find that many pupils can’t control the car and steer at the same time, and they need to dry-steer

That’s fair enough, but make sure you’re not just looking for an easy way out. In all the years I have been teaching, the number of pupils who couldn’t be taught to control the car at low-speed and steer pull-push at the same time, and so have had to resort to dry steering, have been few. The vast majority of learners have initial problems with just about every aspect of driving, but that doesn’t mean they should be taught a dumbed down approach at the first opportunity. In my own experience, based on the observed skills of pupils I’ve picked up from other instructors, that is exactly what seems to be happening. Dry steering is seen as an easy way out.

Some people can’t do manoeuvres without dry steering

Yes, I agree, but the number for whom it is a genuine problem is small. The real problem  for most is to do with multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking doesn’t mean doing two things at the same time. The human brain can’t handle that. What it does mean is carrying out several tasks concurrently. I know that sounds confusing, but let me explain.A plate spinning act

Think of a plate-spinning act – the thing where some guy spins plates on the ends of sticks and keeps them all going without any falling off. He starts with one plate, sets it spinning, then uses the time before it starts to wind down to set another going. Now, he goes back to the first and gives it a boost, then he sets a third plate going. He can now go back and boost the second, and maybe the first again. Then he spins up a fourth plate. And so on, until he has many plates all spinning. All he has to do is give each plate a boost as necessary. This is proper multi-tasking – the plate spinner does one thing at a time, following a sequence.

Let’s apply all this to the turn in the road (TIR). In the worst case, a pupil will start moving without having a clue what they’re going to do next – and the car just moves off along the kerb as their brain tries to figure out what’s going on, and what they should do next. Not quite as bad, but still very messy, is the case where the pupil tries to get the car moving, control the speed, and steer all at once. What usually happens is that the car lurches (perhaps stalls), which distracts them from steering. Then, if they try to steer, their foot comes up off the clutch and the car accelerates, which distracts them again and the steering stops. By this time, they’re almost at the opposite kerbside with very little steering applied.

TIR (assuming we’re doing it as a three-point turn) can be broken into three identical stages, each looking a bit like this:

  • select gear
  • find the bite
  • look around
  • release hand brake
  • control speed
  • get full lock on
  • control speed again
  • look around
  • control speed
  • watch the kerb
  • control the speed
  • stop

If we apply the plate spinner approach, where controlling the speed is the same as giving a plate a boost, we have a nice structure that can be followed in a steady sequence. As long as the car’s speed is kept low, everything else just happens.

My instructor is teaching me to dry steer

As I said earlier, you won’t fail for doing it on your test. However, it is bad practice to do it when you don’t need to. It can damage your tyres and other things and it is something you need to avoid whenever you can. However, if you just can’t get pull-push steering and controlling the car then dry steering isn’t the end of the world, and the car won’t spontaneously combust like some instructors seem to think.

I can’t master “pull-push” steering

If you can steer safely and in control, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Even using the palm of one hand and driving like the chavs do is perfectly acceptable… as long as you’re in control. However, if you are a beginner and you don’t already have a suitable way of steering, pull-push is a good technique to master. You can easily practice it at home using a book or dinner plate as a dummy steering wheel.

If you want to steer left, move your left hand to the top of the wheel (or dinner plate), grip, and pull the wheel down until your hand is at the bottom. Move your right hand to the bottom, grip, let go with your left hand, then push the wheel/plate up. To continue steering, move your left hand to the top again, change grip, and repeat – although you’ll probably have full-lock on before you complete the third movement.

To steer right, start by moving your right hand to the top of the wheel and pull down, etc.

Using pull-push means you always have more steering available to you. Using big turns is good for getting full-lock quickly, but you can use small shuffles for more precise steering as needed.

Get the dinner plate out and make sure you can do it.

Do you have to use “push-pull”?

It’s actually called pull-push, but whatever you call it the answer is “no”. As far as I am aware, you have never HAD to do it that way – you’re probably confused about being told that by your own instructor, or by someone else whose instructor told them. The examiner doesn’t care how you steer as long as you’re in control.

That’s not to say that you can literally steer anyway you like, though. Pull-push (or something very similar to it) done properly is definitely the best way – especially for learners.

What about “palming”?

This is what I refer to as “chav steering” – it’s where someone uses the palm of one hand to rotate the wheel, and it is the favoured method of people who are trying to cultivate an image.

I often pick up pupils who use it, and I don’t immediately try to change them unless there is a problem with control. I’m perfectly happy for them to use it when they’re doing manoeuvres because of the low speeds involved. However, if they try it when turning into a road or round a sharp bend, if my guts flip even a small amount as a result of the change in momentum then I’m right on it, and they will learn how to steer using pull-push.

Palming to steer at normal speeds and in normal situations is pretty much pointless because you simply don’t need to steer that quickly. Beyond that, it comes back to that thing about image again – which is fine for an established driver (where you’d call it a habit), but not for an inexperienced beginner who just wants to look “cool”. Steering too quickly adds an additional sideways component to the forces acting on the car, and that increases the risk of a skid or spin-out, and palming can easily lead to that. And remember that this kind of accident is common among younger inexperienced drivers.

Is it OK to teach learners to “palm” the wheel?

Well, if they remain in control when they are steering then there is no fault for the examiner to mark. However, if they steer too quickly when turning left or right into side roads or bends then there most definitely is a control issue and the examiner might well mark it. With an inexperienced driver, showing them how to palm the wheel is a pointless additional risk.

A decent instructor should not be teaching palming as a preferred steering method for beginners. There’s too much that can go wrong with it. For established drivers the risks need to be assessed and dealt with honestly. Quite simply, too many ADIs steer like that themselves and this is why they teach it. It is bad practice, though – much like dry steering.

How do you teach a pupil to steer properly?

It isn’t rocket science, so don’t let your pupils think it is. Remember that as long as they are in control it doesn’t matter how they steer. Having said that, if they have not driven properly before it is a good idea to teach them how to use the pull-push method first (and to avoid dry-steering), and then let them develop their own style from there. Pull-push requires fundamental skills that they can use in their own style. Let them practice with a large book or diary – if you have a dummy steering wheel, so much the better.

Once they know the principle of steering, the next step is putting it into practice. For most new drivers that’s not a problem and just getting out on the road is enough for them to hone their skills. However, some new drivers need a bit of extra help with knowing how much to steer and when, and finding an empty car park which is big enough to drive around in a figure of eight pattern is great for practising this.

How do I correct someone’s steering while they’re driving?

This is an actual search term used to find the blog. It might be necessary for an instructor to position the car correctly for a learner simply by holding the steering wheel and steering slightly from the passenger seat. The pupil can then zero in on their position relative to the kerb or white lines and learn from that.

How many turns is full lock?

It varies from car to car. In my Ford Focus it is currently just over 1¼ turns either way, but in the previous model it was just under 1½ turns. One of my pupils has a car where it is nearly 2 whole turns.

Is full lock the same as one complete turn?

Read the previous answer. Full lock is when the steering wheel won’t turn any further. It will go “clunk” against the end stop.

One turn is one turn. If full lock is more than one turn, then no, full lock and one turn are not the same.

How much do I need to steer?

Don’t get bogged down counting quarters or halves of turns of the wheel (except perhaps during some manoeuvres). Steer as much as you need to by watching where you’re going and making the car go there.

If you get muddled when it comes to straightening the wheels after having turned to full lock, it can sometimes be useful to count your hand movements needed to get full lock in the first place, then count the same number of hand movements back. Obviously this depends on having a reliable technique – it won’t work if you use hand-over-hand one way, and tiny little shuffles going the other.

What are typical steering mistakes made by learners?

In my experience, the following are all high on the list:

  • looking at the steering wheel
  • looking too close to the front of the car
  • looking at the kerb
  • not looking ahead
  • being distracted by other things
  • gripping the wheel too tightly
  • not moving their hands when steering
  • steering too much or too quickly
  • steering too little or too slowly

The list is really endless, but not all learners make all these mistakes. Most pupils who have problems tend to specialise in one particular fault.

Remember that it is important to identify the precise cause of the fault. Someone might not steer enough going round a corner, but it could be simply that they were trying to change gear or cancel the indicator. In some cases, though, question them and you may well find it was because they were thinking about a mistake they made earlier. The trick is to dig the real fault out.

My pupil keeps moving the steering wheel all the time, even on straight roads

It’s probably because they’re not looking far enough ahead. Think about it: your hands will follow your eyes without you being aware of it, and this means that if you watched a video of yourself driving on a straight road, your hands would be making small corrections the whole time. Learners tend to look much closer to the front of the car, and as a result their adjustments are more frequent, and of greater magnitude. Get them to look a couple of hundred metres further on – point out various things for them to look at – and there’s a good chance their steering will become very smooth.

My pupil keeps taking one hand off the steering wheel

If they’re in control it doesn’t matter. They should try to keep two hands on the wheel, but dropping to one hand now and then isn’t a problem. It can even be a good exercise to get them to steer with one hand – their road position often improves dramatically, because they are concentrating more.

How can I practice steering?

Well, first of all, don’t over think the subject. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a pupil who couldn’t steer within a few minutes – and certainly not within 20 minutes or so – so you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

Occasionally, I do get people who have an initial problem with pull-push steering if they’ve never done it before. What I do in those cases is whip out my diary, which is A4-sized, and get them to pull-push-pull one way, then the other. I demonstrate it first, of course. Once they’ve done the correct hand movements once, it’s no problem after that (it’s a bit like those Chinese puzzles you get, where once you know the secret you can do it with your eyes shut). In the past, I’ve had pupils who have practiced at home using a dinner plate (and even one of those kiddies toy steering wheels would do it – as long as you lock yourself in somewhere with the curtains drawn so no one will laugh at you!)

As I said previously, once people have the ability to do pull-push, I let them develop their own method from it.

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