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Thoughts on Rear View Bike Mirrors

Rear View Bike Mirrors

I’m an adamant mirror user; if I leave my apartment having forgotten my mirror, I go back up to get it.

If you’re still on the wire about adding a bike mirror to your safety and awareness kit, here are some thoughts to reflect on. ;-)

For those of you who drive a car, think about how frequently you check your mirrors and what information those quick looks give you. Even when just holding steady in the lane, good drivers like to have a 360 degree sense of their environment. Is someone coming up fast on my left? Is someone riding my bumper? Do I have room to respond to situations as they arise? Drivers with this kind of awareness have a more relaxed response to NYC driving challenges; they rarely get boxed in by a double parked truck or a taxi picking up a fare.

On your bike, monitoring approaching traffic reduces that tense feeling you get from not knowing what’s coming up behind you. Even when not making a complete lane change, cyclists need a certain amount of elbow room; rough roads, activity near the edge, and cars exiting driveways all call for room to maneuver. Can you drift a little this way or that in response? Or are you rigidly locked in your track because you’re uncertain about the status of vehicles approaching from the rear?

Awareness of approaching traffic enables a more fluid, more involved style of riding. As a motorist approaches, you stand ready to facilitate the interaction. Whether with a hand signal or a change of lane position, you project a sense of awareness, involvement, and control. Motorists find this reassuring – it reduces their fear that you don’t know there’s a car coming! The benefit is slower, calmer passes and less honking.

And so often, my mirror gives me good news: the car who was approaching has decided to park, the cab to discharge a passenger, the entire flow stuck behind a double-parked truck. So often I find the mirror giving me the welcome news; there are no cars coming at all!

When it is time to make a lane change in a denser flow of traffic, say, to move around a truck parked in the Sharrows on 2nd Ave, you can watch the mirror for the desired gap in the adjacent lane, only beginning the lane-change negotiation when it makes sense.

Regarding making lane changes based on a mirror check, the best advice I’ve heard is, “The mirror can tell you ‘no’, but the mirror can’t tell you ‘yes’”. The point being, the mirror does not eliminate the need for a scan back and signal before committing to a lane change.

On that same point, the scan back is a crucial part of your communication with motorists. From their point of view, seeing a cyclist move laterally without the scan (and the accompanying hand signal) reads as erratic, unpredictable behavior.

I’ve heard it argued that “I don’t want to become dependent on a mirror”. I am happy to use and be “dependent” on any technique that increases my situational awareness. There is no handicap that results from having more information.

My personal preference is for an eyeglass or helmet mounted mirror. (I use an eyeglass mirror which I store in my handlebar bag. It goes on along with my helmet and gloves.) No matter what position I’m in on my bike; sitting up, on the hoods, in the drops, I can always check the mirror. I like the way I can scan the horizon behind me with a little rotation of my head. In NYC we ride on both sides of streets (and bike lanes may be on either side) and I can use the single mirror to watch any lane.

But I know people who like other styles of mirrors (handlebar, bar-end, down tube, and even wrist or arm strapped). I’ll leave that for you to decide. Try one style or the other and see how you like it. But let’s get you a mirror – it’s like having eyes in back of your head!

Lance Jacobs, NYC
LCI #3507
VirtuousBicycle.com

Google Image Search: Rear View Mirrors for Bike Riders

About the author

Lance Jacobs

A native New Yorker, biking has been part of my life from my paper route in 5th grade, through my international tours on 4 continents. Now, as a League Certified Instructor (LCI #3507), my focus is on studying and teaching the best way to ride in NYC's unique street environment. I love cycling and I love my city. I believe riding our streets can be stress free when approached with some solid skills, some basic knowledge, and the right frame of mind.

3 comments

  1. Paul Weeks (@pfweeks)

    I feel naked and vulnerable without my helmet-mounted mirror. Both my club ride helmet and my commuting helmet both have the same mirror mounted and it is one of the most important pieces of safety equipment I own. I would ride without lights before I would ride without a mirror, but my commuting helmet solves both needs. I have adapted a 3 AA cell Mammut hiking light to my helmet that has 3 flashing LEDs on the battery pack at the back and 3 levels of wide and deep lighting at affixed to the visor at the front and I have generous amounts of reflective tape on the helmet too. This way I can grab that helmet and ride any bike at any time and feel safe, visible, and in control. I still use bag and bike mounted lights, but I could get on anybody’s bike with just that helmet and be fine in traffic.

  2. Mark

    I agree I have been riding with a mirror for 25 years. I use one that attaches to the brake/shift levers. I tried the one that attached to glasses but to see what was in the mirror I had to close my right eye to focus my left eye . Felt that was a little dangerous.
    I set it up to see the road and my left hip, this allows me to see what is behind me and who is behind me.
    I feel lost without my mirror and computer when I ride.

  3. Cris Cusack

    Hi, Lance,
    Couldn’t agree more. I am absolutely “dependent” on my mirror that attaches to my helmet and hangs in front of my left eye. If I ever try to ride without my helmet, I keep looking off to the left and not seeing what’s behind me, so I feel like I’m missing an eye! This has been reinforced to the point where I can’t ride without a helmet even if I wanted to (it’s tempting on nice days). Really enjoyed your presentation at the Bike Expo and your advice on the QB Bridge! :)

    And yes, fellow geeks, I chose that mirror because it reminded me of THIS Star Trek Episode.

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