Reflections on cycle mirrors

mirrorsIn a recent online article on the development of commuter cycleways in Wellington a commentator indicated that in the interests of self-preservation he never rides without using a rear view mirror. His comments made sense: why don’t more cyclists ride with the extra safety of a mirror to increase awareness of what is happening around them? Or simply to keep an eye on the group tail-enders, to ensure no-one is dropping off the back? After all, all other vehicles (including motor bikes and scooters) are required to have rear-view mirrors fitted, so it makes sense that cyclists – using the same roads – also use this added safety feature. Surely anything which increases awareness of surrounding traffic must be beneficial?

And in the case of “older” riders (like the 5Men), with decreasing flexibility, a mirror to complement the look behind should have added attraction.

One Australian rider is so passionate about this that he made his own video. Setting aside the funny hat, this is well worth watching as he makes some telling points:

Food for thought there.

Informal Research
Time for some research, starting with a very unscientific “survey” of mirror usage by commuters and recreational cyclists spotted on my daily (car) commute to the office, and on our regular rides in the weekends. My sampling was of necessity rough: I ignored anyone on “serious” road bikes (there may be good reasons for no mirrors on “competition” rides – or when training for them), and focussed on the more casual riders – commuters and recreational riders –on a mix of MTBs, hybrids and cruisers, although obvious commuters and casual riders on road bikes were included. My assumption was that safety should be of more than passing interest to these riders, given that they are riding on shared roads, and not obviously training for competition.

On a typical drive into work each day I see between 10 and 15 riders who meet my rough criteria (note however that my route to work is mainly away from the popular cycling commuter routes), and who pass close enough to me observe the presence of mirrors. The results are disappointing, but not unexpected.

Mirror usage in Wellington is minimal

Mirror usage in Wellington is minimal

From my admittedly crude sampling it is clear that mirror use is not high in Wellington. Bike mounted mirrors are most commonly seen on retro and cruiser style bikes (they may be part of the package), but even there they are the exception rather than the rule. More pointedly, mirrors are only rarely seen elsewhere. Where riders of other types of bikes do use mirrors the preference seems to be for head-mounted solutions (i.e. on the helmet or glasses), presumably as these are more flexible (they can be “moved” from one bike to another), and less prone to damage from knocks. Or is it simply that they are less obvious?

Across all groups the proportion of users would be well below 5 percent of the sample. Although that might explain the paucity of options in the main retail shops, this may also be a “chicken and egg” situation: are there few options in the shops because there is low demand, or is low demand a result of there being few options? Perhaps in the interests of safety retailers should offer mirrors as a matter of course to anyone buying a “recreational” bike? Most retailers already try to on-sell clothing, helmets, lights and other accessories; why not mirrors in the interests of increasing safety?

Online research

More research needed, so over to that font of all knowledge, Google. And there is a wealth of comment available if you search it out: gear reviews, cycling blogs and discussion forums (fora?). I won’t attempt to provide a detailed summary, but – setting aside the marketing claims for specific solutions – there are some common themes which can be readily distilled from these sources:

  • The use of cycling rear-view mirrors is largely a matter of personal preference
    • If you can get over the perceived negatives (mainly aesthetics and appearance) users are positive – but few in number
  • If you do accept that the benefits outweigh the negatives, there are many solutions available, in four broad categories:
    • Traditional “wing-mirror”, handlebar mounted styles, mounted on either the bars (on a stalk) or the end of the bars (see “Bike Mirror”)
      • Readily seen by other road users, which can be beneficial, but ironically may also add to user reluctance
      • Options exist for all bike types
      • Can be prone to knocks, particularly if they extend beyond the end of the bars
    • Frame mounted, typically at the junction of the head tube and down tube, but can be lower, including on the forks for some models (see Bike Eye or the NZ-made option Safe Ride Mirrors)
      • You need to look down to use these, which diverts your view from straight ahead
      • The view may be partially obscured by your body or the bike frame and attachments (not recommended with panniers)
    • “Rider” mounted, generally on the helmet or eyeglasses, but wrist options are also available (Take-a-Look Rearview Mirror)
      • These have the added advantage of being fully portable, as they are attached to the rider not the bike.
    • Small convex mirrors applied to the end of drop bars are also available
      • These are fiddly to install and to adjust accurately (they are installed under the tape), but are not prone to misalignment from knocks once installed properly
      • The most popular appears to be the Italian Road Bike Mirror but there are other options
    • And yes, there are high tech options (e.g. Owl 360) which combine a bar mounted monitor with a rear-facing camera, but are these currently a solution looking for a problem? Or simply a solution which is ahead of its time and needs the technology to catch up with the concept?
      • High cost: $200+ for the tech solution or $20 for a mirror?
      • How reliable are these? Can the monitor be seen in bright sunlight? Are they truly rain-proof?
      • Why not include other capabilities, such as recording or ride tracking?
    • Finally – and most importantly – a mirror does not replace the look over the shoulder
      • The mirror increases awareness of following traffic
      • A proper look back is always needed before changing course

Your choice

When making your selection it is also important to recognise that some mirrors are flat, others are convex:

  • The former claim to provide greater clarity and a more accurate picture of proximity of approaching traffic, but have a restricted field of vision unless they are relatively large – and intrusive
  • The latter increase the field of vision and are typically less intrusive, but may distort the image if the curve of the mirror is excessive – distant objects are difficult to see, and easily seen objects are closer than you might think

The choice is largely up to individual preference, as there are advocates and critics of all styles, so you’ll have to work out for yourself what works best for you, and try several options – or talk to other users you spot with mirrors. Unfortunately, the range available in NZ is limited, so you may need to purchase your preferred option from an online service. All of the mirrors commented on above are available online.

Taking one for the Team

Bike-Eye: An unusual sight-line along the frame

Bike-Eye: An unusual sight-line along the frame

Theory is all very fine, but there is nothing like personal experience to help reach a decision. So I’m taking one for the team, and have ordered a Bike Eye mirror to get some real world experience: does a mirror help or hinder my riding and safety (real or perceived)? I should have it in the next few days, and will report back on my experience.

And why the Bike Eye? Simple really: I wanted to avoid having my riding aid wiped off by passing vehicles, or knocked out of alignment when the bike is leaned against a wall. The frame-mounted Bike Eye reduces both possibilities – provided the unusual sight-lines work on my bike.

I also belatedly considered the NZ-made Safe Ride Mirror, but only discovered this option after I had ordered the Bike Eye. I might yet explore it if the former does not work out.

One response to “Reflections on cycle mirrors

  1. Pingback: More reflections on riding mirrors | Five Men on Bikes·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s