How to set mirrors for close-quarter, multi-lane driving

New mirror adjustment method shows better who or what is beside and around you

Published: February 29, 2012, 12:00 PM
Updated: November 22, 2021, 3:45 PM

One of the more controversial aspects of driver training in the current age is that of mirror setting.

A strong case has been made for a new method that allows for awareness of traffic in adjacent lanes and reduces the dreaded blind spot.

Proponents of this new system include most leading novice-driver training schools, the American Automobile Association, the Traffic Safety Education Association and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Opposition comes mainly from those whose own training harkens back to an era of less-crowded roads, those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and of course those resistant to change.

The general principal of the modern method of setting side mirrors goes back more than a decade and coincides with the practice of equipping new vehicles with two side view mirrors.

The reason for the new method is the same as that for equipping vehicles with two outside mirrors instead of one: more traffic, more lanes, more risk as a result of not knowing who or what is beside and around you.

The original method dates back 100 years to a time when there was little need for knowing what was going on beside your vehicle. Roads only had two lanes and rarely were two vehicles adjacent for more than a few seconds. Vehicles generally had one mirror set to show the side of the vehicle and another to the rear; they actually became known as rear view mirrors.

As multi-lane roads became more predominant, speeds increased and passing on the right became commonplace. Statisticians and others in the traffic safety field noticed a growing number of deaths and injuries as a result of two vehicles travelling in the same directions, trying to occupy the same piece of road.

Regulations were changed to require two outside mirrors. But as with ABS (anti-lock braking systems) and many other advances, the driving public was not provided with information as to their use.

Driver Instructor training had all but ground to a halt, certainly with respect to new techniques based on factual research versus personal opinion. Then, a few traffic safety experts started to play with the outside mirrors, treating them as side view mirrors, with startling results.

People who converted to the new method were constantly being surprised by the appearance of a vehicle beside them, having been alerted to the fact by the side view mirrors.

Thus aware of the other vehicle, they were able to avoid conflict. A bonus came from the fact the new setting also greatly reduced the glare from the lights of following vehicles at night.

Okay, so what's the difference? The traditional method of setting outside mirrors is to adjust them so you can just see the side of your own vehicle. The resultant line of sight means you cannot see the space adjacent to the rear half of your vehicle. The new mirror settings bring that space beside you into the picture and leave the view to the rear to the rear view mirror – the one inside the car – up by your eyes.

To set your side view mirrors properly adjust your seat to the usual comfortable position in relation to the controls and airbag. Now lean your upper body to the left and rest your head against the driver-side window. With your head in this position adjust the driver's side mirror in the traditional manner, so you can just see the edge of your vehicle on the right side of the mirror.

Now set the passenger side mirror by leaning as far to the right as you can, pretending to be in the middle of the car; same deal, set the mirror so you can just see the edge of the vehicle in the left side of the mirror. Now assume your normal position behind the wheel. Whoa! You can't see the sides of your vehicle any more! Your safety blanket is gone.

It feels weird, until you start to drive in multi-lane situations and suddenly become much more aware of the vehicles beside you.

If you want to check it out in a parking lot, ask a friend to help. With the mirrors set the old way, ask the person to walk toward your vehicle from a spot perpendicular to the rear bumper. While in the driver's seat looking straight ahead, yell when you first notice them in the side mirror. Ask them to stop and mark that point on the ground.

Now set that mirror the new way and have them repeat the approach from the side. Repeat on the other side of the vehicle with the other mirror. You should be seeing them when they are at least a metre further from your vehicle than with the old method. If not, you haven't adjusted it out enough.

Get out and look carefully at the spot they were standing with both methods. One had you seeing a space beside your vehicle so close to it as to be useless; the new one has you seeing a space that would likely be occupied by the grill of a vehicle in the adjacent lane, one you couldn't see before.

To complete this mirror demonstration, ask the person to walk from one side of your vehicle close to the rear bumper.

If you’ve set the side and rear view mirrors correctly, you should be able to follow them from one side mirror across the rear view mirror and into and out of the other side mirror. It is just this broad range of vision that will allow you to deal with current multi-lane driving conditions.

After teaching this method to thousands of people over the years - both new and experienced drivers - I've never had anyone tell me they returned to the old method once they gave it a fair chance for a few days.

Other benefits? Now that you can see beside you, the shoulder check can become a head check because you don't have to turn as far from the road ahead to see what's beside you. Older drivers and those with reduced range or motion in their neck will be much more comfortable. Merge lanes become easier to handle because you can more safely keep your main line of sight to the front while being aware of traffic to the side. Motion in your mirror, caught in your peripheral vision, will have you more constantly aware of what's out there. And the biggest one of all - that moment when you realize you probably avoided a crash because you saw something you know you wouldn't have with the old method.

One drawback - you can't use this method if you don't have a rear view mirror or are driving a vehicle with no visibility to the rear through the inside mirror i.e. towing a trailer, or driving a truck with a blocked path of sight.