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 are:

    turning into a side road
    about to overtake another vehicle
    changing lane on a one way system or dual carriageway

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 snapshots?

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 yourself.

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 pulling out?

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 mirror.

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 of!