Riding Skills: Head Checks and Blind Spots

mainBlindSpotIn case you haven’t noticed, we get many story ideas from firsthand riding experience. This month’s Riding Skills comes directly from something that happened to me on this morning’s commute to the office. Had I not done a head check to see what was in my blind spot, not only once, but twice, I probably wouldn’t be here to write this.

I was in the far right lane of a three-lane highway, preparing to pass a slower car. I checked my mirror, turned on my signal, looked way over my left shoulder, and nobody was coming. Just before I pulled into the center lane, I figured “Let me take one more look.” And sure enough, there was a speeding Dodge Challenger veering from the fast lane into the center lane, and closing fast. Had I pulled into the lane without looking again, it would have been a test of my bike’s acceleration and his car’s antilock brakes.

Not enough can be said about the importance of performing a thorough head turn to see if the coast is clear. Head check, blind spot look — call it what you will, the point is you can’t put your full trust in your mirrors to see what’s bearing down on you from behind.

Back when I was a professional tractor-trailer driver I was trained to trust my mirrors. That’s all a trucker has, that’s why their mirrors are so big. I remember my truck driving school instructor saying, “If I owned my own truck, I’d have as many mirrors as I could fit on the hood of my rig.” Hearing that conjured images of a grotesque rig with an exaggerated amount of hardware bolted to every surface, but he had a point. Even when making a lane change with a big rig, I would signal, wait, accelerate, and decelerate, all the while checking those mirrors to see if I could detect any type of presence or even movement. In essence I was moving my truck fore and aft to expose whatever might be in my blind spot in the mirror’s reflection. Once it was determined the coast was clear, the lane change was slow and deliberate, not abrupt.

We riders are fortunate. While there are blind spots in our mirrors, motorcycles are bereft of rooflines, door pillars, and dark tinted glass to obscure our view. If we just turn our heads, we have a clear view.

My recommendation is simple: turn your head as far as it will go and take a good look at the blind spot — not just a quick glance out of the corner of your eye. Your motorcycle’s mirror’s are but one tool to help you see what’s back there, but they’re not all encompassing. Nothing can replace seeing for yourself.

When I teach MSF Basic RidingCourses I find myself repeating over and over “Turn your head.” Students new to motorcycle riding lack the confidence to look where they want to go, let alone check blind spots thoroughly. Big head turns on the range are rare. We have an exercise in which the student performs a mock lane change and head checks are coached. Fortunately, it’s a relatively secure environment. I haven’t seen any speeding Challengers on the range lately.

Some aftermarket motorcycle mirrors I’ve seen on custom bikes are laughable, poor excuses for safety equipment. While some folks install the bling-of-the-week mirror to make their bike look cool, going to a smaller mirror size can make a cool bike dangerous. (I’ll note here that the Rivco mirrors we install on page 87 are generously proportioned, and offer the added benefit of LED signals.) Performing a proper head check is directly related to communicating your intentions to other motorists, just as the LEDs on those mirrors do. If you’re looking over your shoulder for a suitable cushion of air in the adjacent lane, hopefully other motorists will notice and oblige. It also doesn’t hurt to add a hand signal to further communicate your intentions. The more signals you provide, the more likely it is that you will be seen.

I’ve seen small convex blind spot mirrors, suitable for use on standard motorcycle mirrors, available through the aftermarket. And just as I mentioned in regards to truckers’ convex mirrors, they’re not a replacement for a good head check. They can aid to help you see if something is going on back there.

An ironic twist is the fact that more and more automobiles are being offered with all manners of blind spot warning devices. I certainly hope those folks who afford such luxuries aren’t putting their entire faith in them. So beware of motorists who are not performing head checks themselves to see if you are riding next to their quarter panel. The telltale sign for me is when I see a driver boost himself up in the driver’s seat to get a different view of his side-view mirror, yet he doesn’t turn his head to actually look out the side window. What a shame. It’s a halfhearted effort.

If you have a disability or neck problem that prevents you from craning your neck all the way left or right, you may not want to ride a motorcycle. That might sound strange coming from a motorcycle magazine, but I don’t know how long you’ll be able to safely ride with blinders on, which is essentially what you’re doing if you can’t look.

The bottom line is this: turn your head all the way, as far as it’ll go. Take a good look. Be sure; don’t guess. Don’t just take a peek; look, and look again if you need to. And trust me, you need to. RB

Story and Photos By Steve Lita