What constitutes the ‘right’ kind of footwear is usually a fairly subjective thing. After all, any shoe accomplishes the basic task of separating your feet from the ground, so often the main determining factor for what shoes you wear comes down to either what’s the most appropriate for your job, what’s the most comfortable, or what you think looks the best.
But when it comes to driving the requirements are a little different, and pragmatism rules. Cute heels? Comfy thongs? They might not be as appropriate as you think.
There are three things that you want to ensure regarding the footwear you use while driving. Firstly, they obviously mustn’t get in the way of your ability to operate the car. Secondly, they need to give your feet good support (especially if you spend long stints behind the wheel). Lastly, they should protect your feet from injury.
The first criteria is fundamental. The most important thing is to ensure that your foot is able to articulate fully while your heels stay on the floor – meaning you can point your toes down as easily as you can point them up, as well as pivot them left or right.
Preserving that range of motion means that your right foot can easily and quicky switch from accelerator to brake without any encumberance, and can also apply maximum pressure to the brake pedal in an emergency.
It’s why very high heels are often not recommended for driving, as they put the foot in a toes-down position by default, while your actual heel is kept far away from the pivot point formed by the shoe’s heel and the car's floormat. It changes the geometry of your joints in a way that isn’t conducive to safe driving.
Chunky shoes are another bad idea. While many might think stilettos are the worst choice for a driver, gumboots are even worse – not only are they big, clunky and liable to press two pedals at once (or get stuck behind a pedal) they offer basically no heel articulation at all. The only thing less suitable would probably be a ski boot.
Thick-soled, steel-toed workboots aren’t as bad, but their bulk can get in the way if pedals aren’t spaced far apart, or the driver’s footwell is cramped. If you wear any of the above for work reasons, maybe consider leaving a pair of sneakers in your car for you to change into.
If you’re a frequent driver or do plenty of miles behind the wheel for work or recreation, supportive shoes are critical. Shoes that are comfortable to walk or run it don’t necessarily make good driving shoes, mainly because heel support may be lacking.
Given your feet will spend most of their time with only the rear part of your heels in contact with the car’s floor (and thus supporting all of the weight of your foot and half the weight of your legs), shoes that ‘cup’ the heel closely and have decent insole padding around that area are the best. A sole that is rounded at the rear helps a lot too, allowing your foot to roll forward and back rather than teeter on the edge of the shoe’s sole.
Backless shoes - be they hotel slippers, thongs, sandals or Crocs with the strap thingo flipped forward - are terrible for this. They’ll want to fall off your feet straight away, and once you inevitably kick them off and resort to driving barefoot they then become an unsecured object in the footwell.
Brake pedals don’t work especially well when there’s a urethane sandal wedged behind them. Just saying.
Contrary to popular belief, driving barefoot or in socks isn't actually illegal in Australia - but it sure isn’t a great idea. Not only is there nothing to spread the weight of your legs away from your heelbone, but there’s also the possibility that you can cut your foot on the sharp edges often found on the backs and sides of a brake, clutch or accelerator pedal.
The same applies for open-toed shoes, thongs and strappy sandals.
Plus if you’re in a reasonably big frontal collision, you also risk doing more damage to your feet by electing to drive barefoot. Many modern cars still struggle with protecting the feet and legs of front-seat occupants, especially the driver due to the added bulk of the pedal assembly. Feet and legs often get trapped or pinched by parts of the car in an accident, and something that may only bruise your foot if you were wearing a shoe may cause a far more serious injury if you were without footwear.
So then, what is the best driving shoe?
Outside of proper purpose-made driving shoes (which, coincidentally, are rubbish for actually walking around in), there’s no one specific kind of normal shoe that’s perfectly suited to driving. Some may swear that driving in heels works better for them, while others aren’t fussed by wearing chunky-soled shoes.
Sneakers are generally considered the best option, but the most important thing is that the above criteria are covered: no restrictions on your foot’s natural range of movement, good support, and adequate protection all around your foot. If your shoes accomplish all of that, they're likely fine.