Backward Vision: The Case for Mirrors

March 1, 2013

Today’s guest post was written by Charlie Otto, a friend of Bike Overnights blogger Mac McCoy. Charlie, who was co-founder and longtime owner of Grand Teton Brewing in Wilson, Wyoming, and Victor, Idaho, began bicycle touring in 1979. Since then, he says, “I have taken more than 15 trips of a month or longer. These include rides in New Zealand, in Europe, and on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.”

I find it interesting that most cars come standard with three rearview mirrors, but bicycles are sold without any! Perhaps the thought is that bicycles don’t have a reverse gear, so why would you need mirrors for backing up?

But seriously, cycle mirrors not only let you see what the cars behind you are doing—if used correctly, they can also enable you influence how the traffic will pass you.

I have traveled with cycle tourists not using mirrors, and their strategy seems to be dependent on their ears telling them when cars, trucks, or buses are coming from behind. When they hear approaching traffic, they get over to the edge of the travel lane as far as possible to give as much passing room as they can … then they pray a bit. What else can you do?

Well, I prefer to see what's coming from behind and position myself on the road to influence the situation for the best outcome for both bicycle and car.

My first goal is to get passing traffic to slow down. I do this by constantly monitoring traffic that is coming up on me. When a vehicle is still quite a ways back, I position myself about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way over into the traffic lane. Approaching drivers see me "in the middle of the road," and they typically slow down. I can usually hear the change in sound of their engine, confirming that I have influenced their speed.

My second goal is to get them to give me some extra room as they pass. Here if I were to use the "get over to the edge as far as possible" approach, the driver would see that he has "lots of room," so he would keep barreling down on me. I would prefer to have him think he doesn’thave lots of room. So, with the use of my rearview mirror, I move over just a bit to let the driver know I’m aware of his presence; I don't move all the way over just yet, however. I am still maybe a foot or two from the edge of the road. In order to have him pass me responsibly, I want the driver to have some "skin in this game.”

My goal is to give the driver, for just a few seconds, two choices: In order to pass he will either 1) have to run me over or 2) stick his neck out by putting his car out into the oncoming lane. Faced with these two choices, most drivers wake up a bit and start paying more attention to the situation I have put them in, and prepare themselves to make a clean pass out and around.

My third goal is to have the driver actually make that clean pass. Remember at this point I am still not all the way over to the right (or the left in New Zealand, et. al.)—not completely trusting that the driver has expert driving skills, and/or a complete understanding of all the spatial relationships involved in pulling this pass off safely.

As I can see in my mirror, when the driver goes to make the pass I finally move all the way over to the edge of the road to give him an extra foot or so of space. The driver wasn’t expecting to get this, and it gives both of us an extra margin of safety and comfort. Hopefully, another clean pass, and smiles all around.

Of course, a mirror can also inform you when a pass isn't going so well, and when you might actually need to bail off the road. Sometimes, like on a recent tour I made in New Zealand, in my rearview mirror I would see five milk trucks barreling down on me; often my best choice was to just gracefully slide off the road altogether and let them pass without challenging the situation. After all, it's all about cycling tomorrow and the day after that, too.

Of course, mirrors have other uses, such as telling you when it’s safe to use the full road for cornering, and for keeping track of what your drafting partners behind you are doing. I also find my mirror pretty handy for shaving my face at the more remote campsites!

It's great know by seeing as well as hearing what is or isn’t approaching from behind.


Hadassah Geraci August 8, 2018, 2:25 PM

Good article!

Don Rogers June 27, 2016, 7:44 AM

Great article! I have glued my mirror and arm to my helmet. Works well. I was with you until the very end - but SHAVING while on a camping bike tour- what are you thinking?

Bob Silfies December 14, 2013, 12:02 PM

For many years I used a mirror that clips on to my glasses, and it gives me quite a bit of flexibility as to where I need to look and it doesn't get ruined if my bike happens to fall over. Another thing: when you see that people have made the effort to move over for you, acknowledge that by giving them a nice wave of your hand. You would be surprised how far a small gesture can go

Tracey August 29, 2013, 10:39 AM

I just had those handlebar grips that you have, installed on my husband's bike, but cannot get the mirrcycle mirror on it - how did you do that? He won't ride without a mirror (I don't blame him).

Charlie Otto March 24, 2014, 7:04 AM

I use the Mirrycle Mountain which go right into the end of my handlebars. I also have been using a sunglass mirror as well and like having both available.

Thomas Williams July 4, 2013, 3:25 AM

I think have mirrors for cyclists, especially on roads that have high car traffic, is just a great and safe idea. I think it should be required, especially for people who are cycling to and from work, especially during peak hours. By doing so, they are able to pay more attention to the ongoing traffic surrounding them, and are able to keep themselves safe. Do remember that regardless of which side you are – in the wrong or not, if a car hits you because you do not know that he is coming behind your back at a fast speed, you are at a disadvantage – you will end up more hurt than the car driver.

Jane Pullman May 28, 2013, 2:48 PM

Very good article. I've been riding with a mirror for a long time, but I'm getting ready for a tour and this article will really help. The trouble I have is that the mirror does not show actual distance between you and the cars behind you.

Todd Maddocks May 22, 2013, 3:38 PM

That is a great article about mirrors and a great primer for those who are on the fence. I'd also like to point out that having a mirror gives you the confidence to stay out of the crap along the curb and helps keep your tires intact a lot longer. We would love to repost your article on our Facebook page found when searching for TIGER EYE BIKE MIRROR

Bruce S. April 28, 2013, 3:19 AM

A great article. And I thought I was the only one doing this. I found that motorists don't appreciate the room you give them when you move over. They simply take up that space. This technique gives you a much greater margin of safety. Mirrors? You bet! I have been saved several times by my trusty mirrors. I wouldn't ride without them. I don't understand why all bikers don't use them. I also notice that bike shops are carrying fewer if any models.

Bicycle Tourist March 19, 2013, 12:10 PM

I agree ... I use a mirror on my touring bicycle.

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