Living with Lifesavers
The last time a lot of riders do a shoulder check is the moment they
turn back into the test centre in front of the examiner.
There are an awful lot more riders who passed in the pre-pursuit
test days who have never heard of the Lifesaver. "All that looking
over the shoulder nonsense is only for when you are learning to
ride" is something I constantly hear from riders with enough
experience to know better.
That attitude gets repeated to newly qualified riders through bike
clubs and the like and peer pressure often makes them forget what we
instructors have tried long and hard to teach them.
The problem is that whilst most riders know that mirrors have blind
spots, many seem to misunderstand exactly where the blindspots
actually are and why you need to check them.
Most riders think that the blind spot is directly behind you. There
might indeed be one there, but you do not usually need to turn round
to look all the way behind you to see into it - the mirrors will
fill in this view! Modern bike mirrors show much more of the road
behind than the old "elbow view" that I grew up with - even my
GSXR750 has a good view of what's going on behind.
On CBT we demonstrate the two blind spots that cause most of the
problem - just behind to either side. This gap in what you can see
is just out of view of peripheral vision, and quite big enough to
hide a bike or even a car lurking alongside you.
And this is the "why" of lifesavers. It is this lurker to your left
or right that the shoulder check or lifesaver is intended to spot.
And it also neatly answers the question that many riders ask: "where
do I look?" It's quite simple - it's the direction you are turning
if there is a gap big enough for another vehicle to lurk. And that
space does not have to be big - as an ex-courier, I KNOW very well
how little space I would have needed to pass you on your bike.
It's a vital addition to the information you are gathering,
especially if you are about to make a manoeuvre that potentially
takes you across the path of another vehicle, for instance if you
turning into a side road
about to overtake another vehicle
changing lane on a one way system or dual
If you can't work out where this blind spot is, do what we do on CBT
- set the mirrors up so you can see a friend standing behind your
bike. Then have him walk forward up the side of the bike and and see
exactly where he vanishes from your view.
"Ah, but it takes too long to look behind" is something I hear even
from advanced riders: "it's dangerous". It's a damn site more
dangerous to cut across the path of another vehicle because you
didn't know it was there!
This can be a real problem on overtakes when there are other bikes
around. And if you're thinking about an overtake, so will the guy
behind you be considering it. And if you're being a little careful
and cautious, which price the rider behind gets impatient?
You can lose a car in the blind spots but if a bike's following you,
you won't spot it in either mirror if he sits between your shoulder
blades. Even if he moves around, if he's on the left when you check
the right, and vice versa, you won't know he's there either. Nor
will you see a bike that's started an overtake from behind the
vehicle behind you!
You may here people talk about "mirror history" - what they are
suggesting is that if you look in your mirrors often enough, you'll
know exactly what's behind you and you won't have to bother to check
your shoulder when changing position.
The problem is that a mirror check is like a snapshot, and two
mirror checks are like two snapshots - you still don't know what
happened in the gap between the two. And given the average bike's
acceleration - or even some of the sportier cars - how frequently do
you need to check to maintain a film strip rather than a couple of
What's the problem with snapshots? You wouldn't rely on three or
four glimpes through a hedge to decide whether it was safe to pull
across a main road, would you? You'd look properly before committing
And of course it pre-supposes that you actually remember to do the
mirror check. It's incredibly easy to get distracted and begin to
fixate on other overtaking issues. Passing another vehicle is
probably one of the most complex manoeuvres you ever do on a bike,
where you have to calculate speeds and distances well beyond the
functional limits of what the brain can actually deal with, looking
even further ahead than normal, and looking for all the myriad of
things that can go wrong.
Can you guarantee you checked your mirrors enough preparatory to
I wouldn't want to rely on it.
You'll find that all you need to do to see into your blind spot is
turn your head so that your chin just touches your shoulder - you
can even do this on a sportsbike where you are leant over forwards.
If you do a mirror check and then follow that up with a "chin to
shoulder" check, you'll have filled in all the information you can
gather to the side you are looking in a second or so - barely longer
than a simple mirror check takes your eyes off the road ahead. I
really cannot see why people are so against the idea of doing them.
If it's timed correctly it's no more dangerous than looking in the
What will surprise you if you are not used to using shoulder checks
is how close your guinea pig can be without you seeing him. Remember
this next time you are riding with a mate - if you couldn't see your
friend, you might not be seeing a car you are about to cut in front