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Rear Observation - when to & when not to!

Years ago, I demolished my 400-Four in London. How? I was looking over my shoulder having completed a turn from a side road when the driver in front who was in the far left lane of 5 on a one way system suddenly decided she wanted to follow the one way system to the right. She braked hard, and I looked back just as I hit the back bumper. So I have been cautious about looking over my shoulder ever since.

The subject came up recently on www.visordown.com. Rear observation is one of those areas where there are as many different ideas as to what you should do as there are riders. Part of the problem is that people get confused about what constitutes a shoulder check or a lifesaver, and another part is that for years examiners hated to see riders using mirrors so riders grew up thinking they should look over their shoulder at every opportunity - right into the 80's people used to take 'em off on test to force themselves to look behind. Even as late as a couple of years ago, examiners still wanted to see riders looking over their shoulder before doing such mundane things as changing speed or indicating. Fortunately since DAS, that's pretty much changed and now the examiners want to see common sense use of mirrors and shoulder checks.

Anyway, at the risk of seeming wise after the event, here are my notes on rear observation:


What are we looking for?

When you ride on the road you need to be aware of the traffic behind you. Before you change speed or direction you must know how your actions will affect following traffic. You also have to know when traffic is likely to overtake or come alongside you. So you need to ask yourself three questions:

  • what am I looking for?
  • where am I looking for it?
  • what can be expected?

You should take rear observation before you:

  • signal
  • change speed
  • change direction

for example before:

  • moving off
  • turning right or left
  • overtaking
  • changing lanes
  • slowing or stopping
  • approaching a hazard

If you don't, how can you plan your actions to take into account whatever hazards may be behind you? Remember SPA - Scan Plan Act! Consider rounding a corner and finding a badly placed set of temporary traffic lights with a queue of cars waiting. The traffic in front is braking for the traffic lights ahead, obliging you to hit the brakes hard. The signs are too late to give adequate advanced warning. Is this a great time to look behind? Wouldn't it have been better to know already what is behind you? Is this a good time to find out there is a car right behind you? Do you even have the attention to spare? If you already know the car is there when you see the hazard, you can devote your observation to finding an escape route.

Rear Observation means checking what is behind you and to the sides by looking over your shoulder or by using the mirrors. Combine:

  • regular and sensible use of the mirrors
  • the lifesaver glance into the blind area before altering course



If you trained more than a few years ago, the chances are that you were taught to look over the shoulder at every possible opportunity. Direct Access has seen a number of changes to the way riders are taught, but one of the biggest changes of emphasis has been in the use of mirrors.

The riding test seems to have finally accepted that mirrors are there for a purpose and that they are an easy way of finding out what is behind you. On most modern bikes, the mirrors can be adjusted to do a reasonable job of letting you know what is behind. Very few now give you what used to be the traditional sportsbike view of the elbows. Set them up so they give you the best possible coverage. I tend to set the offside mirror up to give a view somewhat to the right of centre, whilst I angle the nearside mirror to cover a little more of the rear view - after all you rarely need a view of the pavement (mind you, I reverse the set up in France!) Keep mirrors clean and use them.

On the few that aren't so good, you might find that your elbows or shoulders obstruct the view behind and you will need to spend proportionately more time checking over your shoulder. You may be able to solve the problem by extending the mirrors with longer stems. On some bikes the mirrors may vibrate and your view will be distorted. I
have generally found this to be a problem with cheap replacement mirrors - it's worth spending money on the admittedly expensive original fitment mirrors if you have this problem.

Bear in mind that even good mirrors present a few problems. Most are convex to give a wide angle view, and just like the wide angle lens of a camera, they distort distance, making vehicles appear further away than they really are. For this reason it is difficult to judge distance and speed, although with practice most riders unconsciously compensate. The danger arises when you ride another bike with a different shape mirror.

Mirrors should be checked regularly, even when riding in a straight line on a road which appears to present no hazards. On the open road, you will probably be checking mirrors every ten seconds or so. You need this information to update the 360 degree mental map that you should be keeping in your head. If you ignore the view to the rear, sooner or later something will take you by surprise, when you least need it.


Shoulder Checks

Mirrors also have blind spots. There are three. One is immediately behind you. On a sports bike with fairing mounted mirrors this can be quite big enough to hide a police car, let alone another motorcycle. The other two are potentially more dangerous, just to the rear of the bike to the left and right. These are the positions that hide the vehicle that you pull across in front of when turning or lane changing.

There is only one solution to blindspots - a shoulder check. There is some confusion about what to do when looking over your shoulder. The old-fashioned view is that a "shoulder check" was a glance into the mirror blind spot beside you, whereas a "lifesaver" was a more pronounced look all the way behind you, and many learners were taught to do this at every opportunity, sensible or not. Indeed the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists manual still shows a picture of a "lifesaver" as a full turn of the head to look behind. I prefer to use the term "lifesaver" to describe WHY a shoulder check is done rather than how!

The problem with the full turn of the head when riding is the considerable amount of time it takes to turn your head, focus on the road behind you and to return focus to the road in front. To do it properly takes around 2 seconds - even at 30mph you have covered nearly 30m looking the wrong way. Many riders find this extremely worrying, particularly if they have had a near-miss as a result. Furthermore, if you are riding a sportsbike with pronounced lowset bars or have any kind of neck problem, you may well find it almost impossible to look all the way behind. Even if you can, be careful not to take the steering with you - many wobbles when looking over the shoulder are caused by trying to look too far round and dragging the handlebars as you look.


The REAL Lifesaver

Probably the most important shoulder check, and one that fully deserves to be called a Lifesaver, is a blindspot check over the right shoulder before turning right. This is a final, quick sidewards glance before you manoeuvre, which confirms all your other observations which you have been using on the run up. This action makes you aware of what is happening just behind and alongside before you alter course. This glance must be timed so that you still have time to react if it isn't safe to perform your manoeuvre. If you are already in the middle of the manoeuvre when you look it's too late! Whilst your actions should be clear to all road users, there are still some road users who feel the need to overtake at all opportunities. On a motorcycle you are simply too vulnerable in a collision to risk such an accident!

Situations where a Lifesaver would be vital are where you potentially come into conflict with cars and more importantly other motorcycles closing up from behind and passing to the side of you:

  • changing position, including turning right
  • changing lane
  • before committing yourself to overtaking

It is fairly obvious that a good set of mirrors do much the same job of gathering the same information as the old fashioned full turn of the head, but without needing such a long look to gather the information needed, and still leaving you with peripheral vision in the direction you are travelling, but they cannot help you look into the blind spot.

Where do you need to look with a shoulder check? Again, anyone who learned to ride ten years or more ago is probably wondering. The old training system had, unbelievably, riders looking over the right shoulder before turning left, and probably did more to convince riders that training and the test was a complete waste of time than anything else!

Common sense gives us two simple rules:

  • look in the direction we are about to move
  • look into any space big enough for another vehicle to insert itself

So if in doubt look over your right shoulder before moving or turning to the right, and over your left shoulder before moving or turning to the left. If you are changing lanes in a one-way system, a shoulder check into the blindspot in the lane you are about to move into would be a good idea. Before overtaking, as your movement would be to the right, a glance into the blindspot to the right would make sense. Turning left in slow moving traffic, you should look left. Many training school neglect this observation, but if you ride in a town with many bicycles or pizza delivery mopeds, it should be obvious why you need to do it! On roundabouts, the danger is usually that you have to leave a gap on one side or the other, and someone will try to fill it - so look that way!


Combining shoulder checks and mirrors

It is important to realise that a shoulder check into the blind spot is no substitute for a mirror check and vice versa. Whilst in most riding situations, only the mirrors are needed, when you need to check the blind spot, you also need to know what is behind you. The trick is to combine both observations - you should be able to glance in the mirror and then continue the look around into a blind spot check in just a fraction more time than either on their own takes.

There is another potential advantage to a shoulder check. A turn of the head alerts a following driver that you are about to do something, and sometimes they will back off - but don't rely on it! If you are being followed too closely by a car, used carefully a pronounced head turn tells the driver that you know he is there.

Work on practicing rear observation so that it becomes automatic. Constantly ask yourself what is behind you - if you don't know at all times, you need to improve your rear observation! But be aware that just looking isn't enough. Whether you look in your mirrors or over your shoulder:

  • you must act on what you see
  • think about how your actions will affect following traffic

It's worth pointing out that I rarely find a car in my blind spot - but on several occasions I've found a motorcycle or a bicycle there!


Is it safe to look?

A fourth consideration is:

  • is it safe to look away from the road ahead?

It is this last that is often forgotten, both in basic training courses, but just as often by experienced riders!

It is vital that you time rear observation carefully. Looking over your shoulder or even in the mirrors too often or at the wrong moment can be hazardous. In the time you take to look behind you:

  • lose touch with what's going on in front
  • run the risk of veering off course

At high speed or in congested moving traffic your attention needs to be focused ahead. In these situations time your rearward checks carefully. Many riders look behind them when it is inappropriate, if not downright dangerous. If a car is pulling out of a side road in front of you and you have an emergency on your hands, you have far more important things to worry about than what is behind you - indeed, if your mental map has been recently updated by the mirror checks you should be doing as a matter of course, you should be confident you know what is behind you! Time your checks so they fall into SAFE periods of riding - in heavy town traffic this will mean grabbing opportunities as they arise rather than doing by rote.

Make your rear observation count - avoid prolonged rear observation or making two rear observations where one would do. In nearly every case, an old fashioned full turn of the head to look to the rear is probably best avoided, particularly in traffic or when travelling at speed. About the only time that you really need to check behind all the way is when moving off into traffic when a mirror check can give a false impression of distance and speed, or possibly when you need to confirm the speed and distance of a car closing up behind before you commit yourself to a manoeuvre that would take you across its path. Think very carefully and decide if it is safe before removing your attention from the road ahead with .

However, this is not to say that you should never look over your shoulder at any time. As mentioned, mirror blind spots leave a hole in your 360 degree mental map. A shoulder check into the blind spot fills in this missing information.



If I have a single message in this tip it's that you can easily look behind at exactly the wrong moment... my simple rule - if there is something interesting happening in front of you, DON'T LOOK ROUND!!









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Copyright © 1999-2007 Kevin Williams

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Last Page update Friday, December 14, 2007 

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 Last Page update Friday, December 14, 2007