Have you ever stopped to consider that the most valuable defensive driving capability you have at your disposal might very well be your mirrors? There’s an old saying that many Ferrari owners use that goes some thing like “What’s a behind you, she no matter!” While the adage may play into the forward velocity capability of powerful sports cars, it does not speak to driver blind spots or the idiots coming up behind you in traffic.
I originally published this article a few years ago. Yesterday, after a couple of near-misses in Los Angeles rush hour traffic, I thought it would be good to dust this piece off again. Had it not been for my sixth sense and near cat-like reflexes (as I chuckle), my backside would have been rearranged. Seriously, it was simply good luck and my mirror-watching skills that saved me.
Until a couple of years ago, I classified myself as one of the worst speeders on the road. I was not a weaver or a lane cutter, just a speeder. After getting two back-to-back tickets from California’s finest, I went to driving school as a way to lick my wounds. Unlike other driving schools, the instructor of this course was a stand-up comedian. I rolled on the floor laughing, but what I took away from the class (besides sore ribs), was this: “Watch for COPS!” By the way, if you get a ticket and need assistance to clean up your record, try DrivingUniversity.com. For on-line traffic school classes, visit TrafficSchoolOnline.com.
Watch for COPS! What a simple thing. Right? Yeah, well, if it’s so easy why did you get your last traffic ticket? It’s not easy. We were all taught to look in our mirrors frequently, but we get lazy and don’t practice this life saving skill.
Watch for COPS! The statement is not as much about avoiding tickets as it is about being mindful of what’s going on around you on the road. How? Simple, really, look ahead, look behind, and look to your sides. Most people rely on their mirrors most when they are changing lanes to avoid getting in another driver's way. If this is how you use your mirrors, then I’m afraid you’re missing the point and you’re well on your way to becoming yet another road casualty.
Proper mirrors are the defensive driver’s best weapon against idiots and COPS (no offense to our officers of civil peace). Proper use of mirrors is the skill of the defensive driver. Proper mirror adjustment comes from a defensive driver’s knowledge. Let’s discuss and explore mirrors, use and adjustment in a little more detail.
Proper Driving Mirrors
A proper mirror seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Heck, if you can see backwards, what more do you need? I’ve always liked the side mirrors on my Porsche cars. They’re big, which flies in the face of most sports car makers. I didn’t realize just how nice big mirrors are until I got my BMW M3, which had tiny little aerodynamic pods with a couple of compact mirrors. They look fantastic, but they aren’t worth a darn for seeing anything behind you. So, it was BMW’s inept ability to build a proper sports car mirror that caused me to search for solutions.
Proper mirrors give you full rear view coverage. You should be able to look in your rear view mirror and see the full width of the rear of your car and slightly to the sides. A good rear view mirror will provide 90 to 110 degrees of visibility. Any less, and you’re driving blind. Likewise, the side view mirrors should provide 45 to 60 degrees of visibility off the sides of your car. The goal is to have as close to 180 degrees of rear view as possible.
One of the ways you can improve your rear view visibility is to add one or more “blind spot” mirrors or replace your rear view mirror with a larger mirror or a convex mirror. A couple of years ago I discovered a little jewel called the Autobahn Blind Spot Mirror. It’s a driver’s side blind spot mirror that attaches to the windshield (inside) at the same level as the side mirror. When correctly adjusted, the Autobahn Mirror gives the driver full view of any vehicle along side in the blind spot. The benefit is that you can adjust your regular mirror farther out, and you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to look to your side.
Proper Rear View Mirror Adjustment
The positioning for the inside rear view mirror is mostly obvious. Simply align it so you have a clear view out of the rear window. I like to align mine a little off center to the right. This help to pick up the right hand blind spot. Also, be sure the day/night switch or lever is in the correct position.
Most people adjust their side view mirrors so they can see the side of the car on the inside edge of the mirror. This is incorrect. You know where the side of your car is, so why do you need to see it? Pulling the side view mirrors in too far limits your rear visibility and greatly overlaps what you can see through your rear view mirror.
The proper setting for side view mirrors is to adjust them slightly beyond the point where you can see the side of the car on the inside edge of the mirror. Positioned in this way, you can see more and remove one of the critical blind spots.
Where there is a vehicle present that isn't visible when checking the side view mirrors, the front of neighboring vehicle will likely be adjacent to your door. If you have a good rear view mirror or good peripheral vision, you’ll be able to spot it. If not, you will need to turn your head to the side or get a blind spot mirror.
One of the things I find most dangerous about having to turn my head to check for cars along side me is that my arms tend to follow. This wasn’t a problem in my dad’s 1972 Oldsmobile 98, but in a sports car it can be pretty dangerous. Sometimes if I sneeze hard I find myself in another lane. Woops! With well-positioned mirrors, your head won't have to turn as far to check for blind spots.
One of the significant benefits I’ve discovered with adjusting my side view mirrors wide is that merging into traffic is much easier. Likewise, as I pass on-ramps it’s easier to “Watch for COPS!” or anything else that might be coming out to get me. Speaking of merging, did you know that the best way to know you have adequate space to pull in front of another car is when you can see their headlights in your rear view mirror? If you can’t see the headlights, you might get flashed the high beams when you change lanes.
Proper Rear View Mirror Use
Okay, let’s review what we’ve learned so we can put it all together into proper mirror usage. First, we use good mirrors so we can… that’s right, “Watch for COPS!” Second, we keep our mirrors properly adjusted so we can… correct, “Watch for COPS!” So, pulling this all together, when driving we should be using our mirrors to… brilliant people, brilliant, we’re “Watching for COPS!”
All kidding aside, this isn’t a lesson on how to avoid traffic tickets. This is how I learned to become a very defensive driver. I spend more time on the road than most people. I average about 25,000 miles a year. In the past five or so years, I can count the number of times on my fingers that a Highway Patrol officer or Police Officer has snuck up on me. I’m very alert to what’s behind me. My rear view skills have saved me from several rear end accidents because I saw the idiots before they got me. And that’s my point, “Watch for COPS!” and save your rear end.
I have a very simple method for “Watching for COPS!” Every time someone passes me, I check my mirrors. If I see brake lights in front of me, I check my mirrors. When I pass someone, I check my mirrors. When I pass an off-ramp, I check my mirrors. When I pass an on-ramp, I check my mirrors (and look up the on-ramp for COPS!). When I want to change lanes, I check my mirrors, turn on my signal indicators, check my mirrors again, then I change lanes. These are all visual indicators that tell me the road has changed, so “Watch for COPS!”
Good defensive driving requires you to know what’s going on around you. To know what’s about to happen, you need to be looking a few cars ahead of you as well as a few cars behind you. Being involved in an accident can be avoided if you train yourself to “Watch for COPS!”
Happy Motoring! And, don't forget to check out the Autobahn Blind Spot Mirror. They are fantastic!