I wanted to thank everyone for keeping the ongoing helmet discussion civil. It’s one of those tough subjects that, for some reason, tends to polarize people.
I may be pushing my luck here, but since we’ve had such a lively, yet civilized discussion on helmets, I thought we might take a look at rear view mirrors as well—another subject that always seems to elicit passionate opinions.
Bicycle accident studies are conflicted on the question of how frequently cyclists are struck from behind by cars. I don’t know if this is a result of where the studies were conducted, which demographic was studied, or what. The general consensus seems to be that cyclists overemphasize the danger of being struck from the rear, although that doesn’t change the fact that a substantial number of cyclists are killed this way every year.
Whether or not you perceive being struck from behind as a grave threat, looking behind is an essential technique for riding a bike, just as it’s an essential technique for driving a car. It goes without saying that anytime you change a lane or move across traffic you must look behind to make sure the lane is clear. The question is whether it’s best to use a mirror to assist in the process, or whether it’s best to just look over your shoulder.
Personally, I advocate the use of mirrors. I’ve used helmet mirrors for the better part of 25 years and I feel half-blind without one. I’m so accustomed to using one, that I often look up to use the mirror-that-isn’t-there while I’m walking through a parking lot. I’m an active user of rear-view mirrors in cars as well. I believe mirrors give us a better sense of situations as they develop behind us, and as a result, give us that few more seconds to react if necessary. Mirrors have helped me to avoid accidents more than once—both in the car and on the bike—possibly saving my life in one instance.
There are valid arguments against the use of mirrors, the most common being that they distract the rider from the road in front of them. The other is that they may tempt a rider to be lazy and take a lane without actually turning to look over their shoulder. I don’t buy the distraction argument—there are so many things that constantly distract us on the road, I don’t believe adding a mirror to the mix significantly changes the equation. And while I agree that a rider should always look over their shoulder before taking a lane, there’s no reason why adding a mirror will necessarily cause a diligent cyclist to suddenly drop their guard.
On the question of helmet versus handlebar mirrors, I say both! But if I had to choose one or the other, I’d pick the helmet mirror because it allows me to scan a wide arc behind me with a small head movement. Plus, handlebar mirrors can sometimes rattle and project a blurred image. The down side to helmet mirrors is that they take a while to get used to and, theoretically at least, they create a small blind spot in front of the rider. And, of course, there’s the question of whether you wear a helmet.. :-)
Ultimately, whether or not we choose to use a mirror is a personal decision very much like the helmet decision, but in this case we have even fewer statistics to support one position over the other. That said, my personal experience leads me to believe mirrors are an important tool that, if used properly, can help safeguard us on the road.