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Mirror and blind spot checks - when and when not to!
Around three years after I started riding I demolished my beautiful Honda 400-Four in London. How? I was looking back over my right shoulder when the driver on my left cut across the one-way system in front of me. I was still looking the wrong way as I hit the rear of the car. Not surprisingly, I have been a bit cautious about timing shoulder checks and even mirror checks ever since. But what makes for good rear observation? There's a lot of confusion out there. Why? Several reasons. What learners are taught changed dramatically as recently as 1997, and advanced groups tend to take a different approach anyway. And of course riders of all flavours forget what they learned. And then there's the faulty thinking that what's taught on test is "just for learners". Throw in some dubious magazine articles, the wonders of YouTube and the internet generally, and the result is almost as many ideas about rear observation and what's 'right' as there are riders. So I'm going to apply a slightly different approach - I'll review the reasons riders get confused, then rather than say "this is what to do", we'll look at just WHY we need to know what's around us to come up with some better answers.
WHERE DID THE CONFUSION COME FROM - At the time I started as a motorcycle trainer, the old DSA motorcycle test actually required that test candidates had to make a full 'look-behind' rear observation. Using mirrors wasn't good enough - that's why test candidates used to take the mirrors off for the test, to force themselves to look behind. Before slowing or braking, before indicating and before turning, test candidates as late as the mid-90's were required to look right back over their shoulder.
Even more unbelievably, the test candidate had to look over the RIGHT shoulder before turning LEFT. I will categorically state looking right before turning left is almost completely worthless. More than anything else, it was probably being trained to make this rearward check that convinced a lot of riders that what was learned for the test was a complete waste of time!
In fact, I agree this check was pointless AND dangerous. Even if we manage to avoid dragging the bars around with us, causing a wobble, looking right back over the shoulder takes time. A couple of seconds. Even at urban speeds, that means we're covering a considerable distance - twenty to thirty metres - looking the wrong way. It was exactly this kind of look that led to my own crash.
It sounds pretty unbelievable now because even a half-decent set of mirrors will gather much the same information as this old-fashioned full turn of the head, in a fraction of the time. But it was only with the introduction of Direct Access in 1997 that the DSA finally realised motorcycles had been fitted with mirrors for decades and allowed test candidates to use a combination of mirror use combined with more judicious blind spot checks. I still remember being informally 'tipped-off' to this change by the examiner. Mind you, even the IAM weren't consistent on this - I have a older (but not THAT old) version of the IAM book that shows a rider doing the full-on look-behind check captioned as 'the lifesaver'. That's not what would have been taught on basic training since 1997.
GET THE BEST FROM THE MIRRORS - Mirrors are there for a reason - to find out what's behind us. Whilst some mirrors still give a good view of our elbows, most can be set up to give reasonable rearward view. Set them up to give the best coverage - I tend to have the offside mirror up to give a more 'wide angle' view, whilst the left is angled behind - after all, I rarely need a view of the pavement. But I can change that on motorways or when in London to deal with multiple lanes going the same way. Mirror extenders that bolt-on between the mirror and mount can improve the view on some bike. Don't forget, mirrors are convex. That offers a wider angle view but distort distances, making vehicles appear further away than they really are. Be cautious on a new machine until you have got used to judging distance and speed. Mirrors should be checked often enough that we're not taken by SURPRISE! One tip - I avoid aftermarket mirrors if I've broken one because original mirrors are generally optically superior and balanced even if they do cost. Cheap mirrors often distort view and vibrate. I think it's worth spending the extra.
SHOULDER, HEAD or BLINDSPOT CHECKS - Even the best mirrors have blind spots - so do the fancy rear view cameras as it happens, even if they eliminate the one between the shoulder blades. A police car once tried to hide when I was on my GSX-R750, and it'll certainly hide another motorcycle, which should make you wonder why other riders persist in following in another bike's wheel tracks. We can usually 'clear' this blind spot by tucking in an elbow (it's how I let the police driver know I'd spotted him) or rocking our head from side to side.
The others are over the shoulders to the the left and right. Vehicles can lurk in this blindspot so we have to be careful when turning into side roads, manoeuvering round roundabouts or changing lane on one-way streets or dual carriageways. There is only one solution to blindspots (hence the term blindspot check) and that's a physical turn of the head (hence the term head check) to see what's alongside us and in the mirror's blind area. Unfortunately, there's plenty of confusion about just how, when and where:
- riders who get confused about the difference between the full-on look-behind observation and a chin-to-shoulder blindspot check and may - usually during an advanced course when memories of the bike test resurface - try to look too far round
- riders who say that ANY head check is dangerous
- in the middle is conventional advanced practice, where newly-qualified riders can be actively discouraged from making a blind spot check - the argument is that if mirror checks are frequent enough, nothing can sneak up so relying on 'mirror history' (that is, remembering what we saw in the mirrors a moment ago) will be good enough but having been surprised often enough by vehicles - usually motorcycles - that had slipped into my blind spot unnoticed, I'm not convinced
Remember, it's not a full-on look behind, simply a turn of the head sufficient - chin to shoulder - to see into the blind area (hence the term shoulder check). Anything further back should be visible in the mirrors. So head, shoulder and blindspot checks are more or less interchangeable. A further advantage to a physical head movement is that it might alert another driver that you are about to do something.
MIRROR BLIND SPOT CHECKS - So how do we make them? Let's start by asking some key questions:
- what am I looking for - the presence (or absence, come to that) of other road users
- why am I looking for it - the reason we are looking is to decide if there might be a conflict between what we want to do and what the other driver might do
- where am I looking for it - the clue is in the name, we're filling in the gap between peripheral vision and what we can see in the mirrors, very roughly backward from the line of our shoulders, hence the 'shoulder check' name
- when am I looking for it - simple enough, before we move away, signal, change speed or change direction
Gathering this information is called taking 'Rear Observation' in the language of basic and post-test training. So to sum up we combine:
- a rearwards look right behind ONLY when moving off
- regular and sensible use of the mirrors
- 'shoulder checks' (sometimes called 'head checks') which are looks into the blind areas to either side
By doing so, we develop what's called 'Situational Awareness'.
WHICH WAY TO LOOK - Since the old DSA system of looking right when turning left completely confused many riders, I tell trainees just use common sense:
- look in the direction you are about to move - right before moving or turning right, left before moving or turning to the left
- look into any space that's big enough for another vehicle to squeeze into (and don't forget that could be a cycle or a scooter!)
THE REAL LIFESAVER - Probably the most important shoulder check, and one that fully deserves to be called a Lifesaver, is a final blindspot check that confirms it's safe to take up a different position. It's usually over the right shoulder before turning right into a side road, but it could be to the left too - for example, before exiting a roundabout after a right turn, and I'd check before turning left too. Many trainers say it's unnecessary but I remember where I might have overtaken you when I was a courier, and there are cyclists to consider too. It's also important to check before changing lanes on one-way streets and multilane roads, or where lanes merge back together. The lifesaver CONFIRMS our other observations. The key point is timing. We must make this check BEFORE we start the manoeuvre. If we're already halfway into a manoeuvre and then look, it could be too late. So, the term 'lifesaver' really explains WHY we carry out a shoulder check!
COMBINING MIRRORS and SHOULDER CHECKS - Understand that a shoulder check is NOT a substitute for a mirror check, nor vice versa (whatever you might hear about mirror history). Whilst we often only need the mirrors to discover what's behind us, it's important to check the blind spot when we need to know what's alongside. To save time, don't make two separate observations, but combine the two - look in the mirror and then turn the head a little further to make the blind spot check. It takes just a fraction longer.
MOVING OFF FROM THE SIDE OF THE ROAD - There is one exception to the 'only turn the head enough to see into the blind spot' idea, and that's when moving off from the side of the road. On CBT and on the Module One and Two parts of the DVSA bike test, the test candidate IS expected to 'take rear observation' before moving off, and this is the full-on, right behind look. It's safe enough at a standstill. (And as a reminder, if you're reading this before taking the bike test, you MUST look behind you ANY time you ride the bike in the off-road areas! You're even supposed to look behind before pushing the bike out of the imaginary garage. On Mod One, if in doubt, look behind.) Nevertheless, on the road I would still combine this check with mirrors - check the mirrors first, THEN make the final check behind. But which mirror? If the road behind is straight, then looking in the right mirror before making the final rearwards check makes sense. But if the road curves to the LEFT behind, the right mirror won't show anything useful and there's a risk that we won't see anything looking over the right shoulder either. When I was a basic instructor, one of the examiners had a habit of getting the trainees to pull up on a left hand bend (probably because it was the only place where there was room to stop for the 'move off again' exercise rather than any malicious intent) and it wasn't unknown for a trainee to look over the right shoulder and not see anything. The curve in the road meant the car coming up behind was behind their left shoulder. A check in the LEFT mirror was therefore a very good idea.
PRACTICE - Work on 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. We need to understand what we're seeing and be ready to act on that information - situational awareness. And there's one final caution to add. Be certain it's safe to look away from the road ahead, even if all that's needed is a glance in the mirrors. This is often forgotten by new riders - like myself all those years ago - and not emphasised enough by trainers. We must time rear observation carefully, and any time there's something more interesting going on in front...
...then keep your eyes ahead. If I'd known that, my 400-F might have finished the journey in one piece.
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