To be fully aware of other road users, your vision and hearing must be unrestricted. If a jacket hood or big backpack gets in the way when you try to look over your shoulder, ride without it. If your hair obscures your vision, tie it back. If you want to listen to music when cycling, ride off-road instead. Knowing what's going on around you is critical on trafficked roads.
Steering without veering
You need to be able to ride one-handed for anything more than a glance behind, because we're not owls and need to twist our bodies as well as our necks. There's a side effect to this: a tendency to swerve outwards in the direction that we look. A bicycle is steered as much by the hips and shoulders as the hands. Twist right, you'll drift right. With good initial road positioning, a slight sideways drift shouldn't be a problem. And with practice, you'll be able to hold your line better when you do look round. Practise looking over your left shoulder too. You'll need to do this for multi-lane roads and junctions, and to check other cyclists or motorcyclists aren't about to undertake you.
Look this way
National Standards cycle instructors talk about three different ways to look behind you: the glance, the scan, and the stare.
The glance: This is a brief check to keep tabs on what the traffic is doing in your vicinity. Glance often as you're riding along, even when you're not planning to change your road position. You know how you glance at your mirrors when you're driving along on a motorway? Like that. A glance takes half a second or less. Flick your head to one side, eyes as far right (or left) as they can be in their sockets. Keep both hands on the handlebar and don't twist your body. You may find you can hold your position better by dipping your head to look down past your shoulder rather than twisting your neck horizontally.
The scan: This is a look back for a second or so to give you a clear picture of what's happening behind. Scan in plenty of time before starting a manoeuvre to ensure there's a safe opportunity for it. Twist your body a little, letting go of the handlebar with one hand if necessary. Weigh up the situation.
The stare: This is a look back for two seconds or so, directly at the motorist behind you. You're negotiating with them. Stare just before and/or while you signal. Because you're looking right at them, you'll be able to tell if they're giving you enough room to do what you want. Because they're looking right at you, something most of us do automatically when someone stares at us, they'll be reminded that you're a person and a fellow road user rather than an obstacle. To stare behind, you'll need to let go of the handlebar with one hand and twist your body round. You may find this easier if you sit more upright as you do so. The seconds it takes to stare will move you some distance down the road… into space you're not currently looking at. Interrupt your stare with glances forward when you need to check what's happening in front.
Check - and check again
Before any look behind, and particularly a stare, ensure that you've got clear road space to ride into. You don't want to rear-end a vehicle or ride into a pedestrian or a pothole because you were busy looking in the other direction! If you're making any kind of manoeuvre, take one last glance over your shoulder before you start to change your road position. The situation might have changed since you last looked back. A driver behind may have decided to overtake. If they've accelerated to 60mph, they will travel 27 metres in a single second. Even at 30mph, they'll cover 13.5 metres.
Pay attention to traffic noise. It's not a substitute for looking around – witness the number of pedestrians who step into the road in front of near-silent cyclists – but it is a useful early warning system. The sound of an accelerating engine tells you that you're about to be overtaken. The sound of a big diesel engine slowing could be a bus about to drop off passengers. And so on. Earphones rob you of your ability to identify and locate traffic, so are a bad idea on road. If your hearing is impaired for other reasons, invest in a mirror.
Mirrors for bicycles fit the handlebar, frame, or a stalk protruding from a helmet. Any mirror can be a useful extra for commuting. It's best for monitoring traffic, as an alternative to glancing. It's not a substitute for the last-second glance over your shoulder before you start a manoeuvre.
A mirror is not an effective replacement for scanning or staring either. The field of view will be restricted and the image may be distorted, making it hard to assess distance or velocity. Physically turning your head will provide a clearer picture. Moreover, you'll alert other road users that you're about to change your position on the road.
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