Backward Vision: The Case for Mirrors


Today’s guest post was written by Charlie Otto, a friend of Bike Overnights blogger Mac McCoy’s. 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.
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