The Rear-view Mirror Question

I was riding laps around the Veloway a few days ago, when I closed on another cyclist. I was about to call, “On your left,” when he glanced up, and moved over on his own. As I drew even with him, I saw that he had a rear-view mirror mounted on his helmet. He obviously saw me coming, and knew when he would have to make way for me.

My friend Gilbert with a helmet mirror.

I’ve never used a mirror. On a typical group ride, I see only a few. Most appear to be helmet mirrors, but occasionally I see a mirror attached to a bar end.

I wonder — would a mirror make a difference?

I always try to be aware of my surroundings when I ride, and I scan behind me frequently. There’s no doubt in my mind that a mirror would make the scanning a little easier, since I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the bike on a straight line while looking back. But it’s the looking back that I think keeps me aware and on my guard.

Besides, a helmet mirror looks a bit dorky, doesn’t it?

Bar-end mirror.

The bar end mirrors are less so.

Like most of us, I also drive a lot. I have a rear-view mirror and two side-view mirrors on my car. I use them constantly. I suppose I should consider doing the same when I ride my bike.

I guess the real question I’ve been considering lately is — are mirrors a biking necessity? Should we all be using them?  And if so, what arguments are there in favor of one type over another?

I’d like to hear about your experiences.

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25 thoughts on “The Rear-view Mirror Question

  1. I’m part of the no mirror club. I stick with the turning my head every once in a while. The bar end mirrors are so small, I wonder how much you can really see in them.

    But I read a very interesting post on Bike forms a while back where a member ran into Dave Zabriskie (of Garmin Transitions fame), turns out he’s got a bar mirror thanks to a few too many close calls on the road. So as far as a mirror being Fredly, if it’s good enough for Dave Z, it’s good enough for anyone. http://www.bikeforums.net/showthread.php?613536-David-Zabriskie-broke-my-heart-this-morning&highlight=zabriskie+mirror

  2. I recently put a mirror on my bike. It’s a foldaway mirror that slots into the end of the handlebars. Read about it here.

    I like the idea of a mirror. I agree that the helmet mounted ones scream “geek” much like a pocket protector or a Star Trek badge (On a side note, never stick a Star Trek badge on your back pack in Scotland, unless you want to get followed by fat nerdy men asking questions about Captain Janeway).

    The biggest problem I have with my mirror is that I have to fold it out to use it and then once I get it into position, the vision isn’t great, plus I have to move my arms to see the mirror properly.

    I think a mirror needs to be wide and convex to allow for good vision and it needs to be mounted out of the way of the arms.

    Either that, or a pair or those rear vision sunglasses out of Back to the Future 2.

  3. I had a few close calls with them. I looked, didn’t see a vehicle, changed lanes, and learned that I cut a car off. I didn’t want a false sense of security, so I stopped using them. But clearly, I was using it wrong, so I should try them again and learn how to use them right.

    You can aim a helmet mirror by swinging your head around. You can’t do that with a handlebar-mounted mirror. But I found that the helmet mirror was so close to my eye that it took too long to focus and aim it. But as I said, I’m open-minded and will try again.

    But I should also say that it’s been about 30 years, and I’m living proof that it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a mirror.

  4. I tried a helmet mounted mirror for awhile during my commuting days. I couldn’t get used to it. Small and hard to adjust to get the right view. And just a little distracting.

    On my fitness rides, I stick to frequent glances over my shoulder. I’ve gotten good at holding a line while doing so. Typically reserve this for high traffic areas or where the shoulder/lane is narrow.

    Now that I’m beginning to run errands on bikes, I’m contemplating a mirror of some sort for my city bike. Especially if I get a trailer and become a menace to the motorists. 8)

    Been looking at various models of bar-end mirror but haven’t decided which I like.

  5. I don’t use a mirror. As you say, the helmet mounted ones just look dorky. And the bar-end ones look so small. Like most everyone else I keep pretty aware of what’s going around me with frequent look backs.

  6. Apparently I’m in the mirrored minority. I’ve been using a mirror designed to go on my glasses but the good ones (glass with metal arms) weigh enough to twist my glasses to one side so I adapted them to my helmet. When the weather is good and I am riding a lot I get so used to checking my mirror for suspicious sounds that I mirror check when walking. There is one rule of thumb when using a mirror–A mirror can tell you when it is NOT safe to change lanes but it can not tell you when it is safe. Always shoulder check when changing your line.

  7. I use a helmet mirror and really like having it. I understand not everyone finds them useful, but I think it’s much easier to glance in my mirror to see behind me than it is to turn my head and risk hitting road debris. And I don’t care if I look like a dork because I have a mirror. I’d rather be safe and look dorky than look like an even bigger dork by falling off my bike or getting run off the road.

    I agree with Grendel – I use my mirror to see when it’s safe NOT to change lanes, but I always glance over my shoulder prior to actually making a lane change just to be sure.

    In my opinion, if people are overly concerned about looking like a dork, then it takes the fun out of riding. I think helmets, taillights and spandex shorts make us look like dorks too, but who really cares?

  8. Since I’m horribly nearsighted and wear glasses (bifocals), I can’t see much when I shoulder check as my lenses don’t cover the sides.

    The helmet mounted mirror is great for scanning as I move my head slightly to cover the view behind.

  9. Oh! And as for Dorky….
    I’m 350lbs, commute almost daily (nightly) in work clothes with an oh-my-god-I’m-being-blinded florescent lime safety vest (complete with reflective tape),
    several Super Flashes on strobe, a headlamp on my helmet, Magic shine on the handlebar along with a 3 watt blinking light, reflective tape on my rack, pannier, fork and helmet.
    I’m lit like a freakin’ Christmas tree.

  10. As oldguy implies, it’s useful to be able to turn your head and keep riding in the same direction. In fact, I’d say it’s a necessary skill, though it doesn’t come naturally. You have to practice. I’m now at the point where I can ride NO HANDS and look backwards and keep a straight line. That took a lot of practice.

  11. I’m unashamed to wear a Chuck Harris original mirror like Gilbert’s pictured above when I commute. Nothing provides situational awareness like being able to keep an eye on what is going on behind you at all times. The Chuck Harris mirror is the best that I have found, as it is sturdy (made from bent bike spokes), highly adjustable, and big enough to give you a good view of what is happening behind you. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there was an adjustment period that I just had to push through to get used to riding with a mirror. You have to learn to tilt and/or slightly turn your head occasionally to keep see what is behind the mirror at intersections where traffic may approach from the left. If you can stick with it long enough to adapt, you’ll wonder how you ever rode without a mirror. Being able to see the cars safely negotiate lane changes behind you when you are controlling a lane is a great confidence builder. On my road bike I use one of those bar end mirrors from Third Eye. It is big enough to see at some distance and is made of glass so it provides a clear reflection. It also cuts down on the dork factor some, which seems to cut down on the Fred comments from the group. However, I totally agree with Alice. If you really wanted to look cool, what are you doing on a bike?

  12. I’m a little surprised at how few people seem to use a mirror. I use mirrors on my bikes that see regular use on the roads, and I wouldn’t want to go back to not having one.

    The mirror on my main bicycle attaches to my brake hood. It’s high enough and out of the way of my arm that I can see quite well in it. I still turn and look behind me most of the time, but the mirror is indispensable.

  13. I had a bar end mirror for a while, but I could never see anything in the thing. My grocery bike has a cruiser style mirror that I do use. I haven’t found a good mirror for a roadbike yet.

  14. The only one I have ever used is called the Bike Peddler Take a Look Mirror. (My endorsement is based on nothing other than the fact that I have used one.) There may be a bit of a dork factor involved, but a lot of roadies around here use these things and it has saved my bacon more than once. After finally trying one based on the recommendation of others, and getting used to it, which only took one ride, I now feel a bit uncomfortable and vulnerable without it. It is really easy to check your six with this thing and it just becomes automatic after a while. It attaches to my wire frame sunglasses, is easily adjusted, and is virtually vibration free. Seems like the bar end type would really have a vibration issue, but I can’t say from experience.

  15. Helmet mirrors look dorky? Is this beyond how less-than-suave helmets look on their own? I have used a helmet mirror for years and love it. I hate riding without it on the times that I do. I use it about the way I use my car mirror – something to glance at regularly to have a good feel for what’s behind me, but not relied on 100%. I’ll check with a head turn before moving out or turning.

    The mirror I use (and reason I started) is the one integrated into the Bell Metro and Citi helmets. Folds up and out of the way when you don’t need it. Covers a decent range of vision. HIGHLY recommended.

  16. Mirror. I look dorky already with the safety lights, day-glo vest, etc. so I may as well complete the look. Seriously though, I use the mirror in conjunction with looking over my shoulder. I just feel more aware of my surroundings having it on my helmet.

  17. I’m happy to serve as the dorky model!

    It’s important to note that a mirror doesn’t replace the physical act of turning your head and scanning behind you. I still do that because it lets motorists behind me know that I’m getting my bearings and that I may be changing lanes.

    What the mirror does for me is keep me aware of what’s going on behind me. Did that car in the driveway I just passed turn to come in my direction, or is it going the other way?

    The other reason I like to wear a helmet mirror is so that I can see who’s talking about me behind my back and calling me dorky… ha-ha!

    • In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that both Gilbert and Wes Robinson are League Certified Instructors (LCIs) – certified by the League of American Bicyclists to teach cycling skills.

      If they both wear mirrors, that says something about the contribution to safety that mirrors make.

      (And no, I did not ask Gilbert for permission to use his picture! Thanks, my friend.)

    • Gilbert… Great point. Even though I am aware of them in my mirror, I’ll sometimes give a vehicle or bike behind me a little left hand lift/wave without coming completely off the bar (using ALL the fingers!) maybe with a slight head turn in their direction to let them know I know they are there (if they are paying attention – not always a good assumption). And sometimes you just have to make a quick head turn to see the whole picture.

  18. I’m a mirror fan, since I ride a “MTB, converted to more road/touring” riding, I have the “dork” factor down so NOTHING is going to make me look any more dorky! ;) I’ll admit I’m having a real hard time finding a mirror that works with the new, “trekking bars” I installed on our bikes. I’m using a mirror that’s suppose to be good on either the helmet or the glasses. Didn’t seem to work well on either my or my wife’s glasses so I’ve got mine on my helmet. It’s ok, but it’s like looking in a backwards telescope a bit. Anyone recommend a bar mount mirror for “trekking/butterfly bars”?

  19. Helmet mirror. I feel even more paranoid if it’s not there; on the occasions I’ve forgotten the helmet, it’s the lack of a mirror that makes me turn back for it. Fellow cyclists do notice it, so they’re not common enough yet. I always recommend they get one as soon as possible.

    I can keep an eye on an upcoming car without them knowing I know they’re there; sometimes I wobble so they give me more room.

    Apart from the traffic use, it’s good for a quiet perv at the lights.

  20. I ride in the country and I use a rectangle mirror on my glasses. I love it and wouldn’t feel safe riding without my mirror. It has to be adjusted correctly… CLOSE to the left lens and up at about a ten-o’clock position. It takes time to learn to wear it correctly; become accustomed to the blind spot it creates; and tilt, turn, and glance at what’s approaching from the rear; but once you master that, you’ll never want to ride without one no matter who thinks it looks un-cool! Seeing a full view of the road behind me is very cool in my opinion.

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