Posted by: safedriver | November 19, 2009

How do you set up your mirrors?

I’ve recently written an article for The Driver magazine outlining when the mirrors should be checked but here’s another debate to bring up; mirror set up. How should the mirrors be set up to give the driver the best advantage? The purpose of the mirrors is to allow the driver to be kept up to date with approaching drivers before they get into the driver’s blind spots. They are also designed to help drivers avoid rear crashes; which is North America’s most commonly reported crash.

The traditional way to set up your inside mirror was for it to frame the inside of your rear window. This still works as it allows the driver to take a quick glance of who is approaching them directly from behind. If you’re sitting in a relaxed position, with your back up against the back of the seat, you should be able to make a quick glance in the rear view mirror without much body movement at all. If you see too much of the ceiling or seats, please re-adjust your mirror.

The major debate seems to come from the side mirror set up. The traditional way was to glance into the driver’s side mirror so you could see a sliver of the vehicle and straight back at eye level. The same went for the passenger side mirror. The interesting thing is that we all seem to call these mirrors a “side mirror”, when in reality it’s an “outside rear view mirror”. They widen the rear view for the driver.

There’s some discussion out there that, as a driver, if you lean as far to your right and then adjust the side mirror to see a sliver of the vehicle, it will eliminate the blind spot to the right. Apparently, if you lean to the driver’s door and do the same thing for the driver’s side mirror, it will eliminate the blind spot on that side. Really? Why do I want to do that? If the side mirrors are set away from the vehicle, I reduce my chance to avoid rear crashes. Remember, they are the most common type of crash in North America. A quick glance over your shoulder to check your blind spot takes a millisecond. Here’s the best part, if you’ve been checking your mirrors on a regular basis, you’ll know who’s about to come beside you and enter into your blind spot. This way, you won’t be surprised when you see someone there after you check it.

To reduce the size of your blind spot on the driver’s side, at Young Drivers of Canada, we’ll teach our students to turn their head to a 45° angle before lining up the side mirror so a sliver of the vehicle is visible in the mirror. This will allow them to see down the side of their vehicle. Now, if they look straight ahead and just move their eyes, not turn their head to the side mirror, it shows more to the side of the vehicle. The blind spot to the driver’s side is drastically reduced, but they can still see down the side of the vehicle when they need to. When would they need to?

Let’s say you’ve been stopped in traffic and a larger vehicle, like a van with tinted windows or a truck, stops behind you. If you can’t see through their vehicle from your rear view mirror and another driver comes up behind them too quickly to stop in time, you won’t be able to avoid the rear crash because you won’t know you need to. If your side mirrors are angled away from your vehicle, you won’t be able to use them either to gather this information. You’ll end up as another statistic from another rear crash. If you can still use your outside mirrors to see down the side of your vehicle, you’ll need to position your vehicle to either side of your lane while stopping so you can use the outside mirror when a larger vehicle is approaching you from behind. This puts you in a proactive state of mind in case you need to move out of the way from the multiple rear crash.

A side swipe is the least of your problems when a rear crash is more common. A quick glance over your shoulder allows the driver to see what’s around them before changing lanes. If the outside mirrors aren’t set up to assist you to see around larger vehicles while stopped, what’s the point? Ask any truck driver who is dependent on checking their mirrors. They have to rely on their mirrors because they have no other choice. We do have a choice.

A compromise here may be needed for crashes to be reduced everywhere. Set your mirrors up so you can have a solution to both side swipes and rear crashes; not just the side swipe. My advice now is to play with both techniques for awhile and see which works for you. You may be surprised with the results.

**NOTE** You may want to look at follow up articles regarding side mirror setup. Try part one HERE and part two HERE


  1. Great article on the mirror debate. It’s exactly how I do it, a tiny sliver of the car in the door mirrors. Why? Because I then haven’t created a blindspot between the rearview mirror and the door mirrors. As stated in the article, this could be enough to mean you have missed a motorbike for instance.
    When trainers state that by increasing the view to the right/left, and eliminating any view of the car, you now don’t have to check over your shoulder, what they are saying is we are now going to create lazy drivers. Checking my blindspot saved me from a crash last month, on the motorway, as a driver thought it was smart to position himself in that area.

    • Thanks for the note. I’m glad you were able to save you and your vehicle by a simple check.

  2. I read this earlier today, and still need to think more about what I am doing with my mirror setup. This is a great topic Scott.
    I used to set my mirrors the way you suggest here.
    Three years ago I attended a saftey meeting put on by a commercial vehicle insurance carrier.
    Because I pull a 48′ flatbed trailer I need a constant visual on my load and tarp securement, so I would keep my mirrors in to see a sliver of the side even in my peripheral vision. I like to check the mirrors every 8 seconds.
    They told me to adjust the mirrors out untill I could see the lane next to me, or the on ramp, and to lean my body and head out to one side or the other in order to see my load. They said that driving 11 hours a day, this movement of my head and eyes would keep me more alert, and allow me too see more of what was behind and approaching from other lanes.
    I can’t see anything directly behind me unless it casts a shadow.
    What do you all think?
    I’m going to be thinking about this all week, and about what I’m doing, and how I might improve.
    My spot mirrors do great for the blind spots, I’m really wondering about my main mirrors now.

  3. Interesting article. Agree with Smart Driver on this subject.

  4. I have done quite a bit of experimentation with this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the side mirrors need to be pushed out further. I used to try and see a sliver of my own car to have a frame of reference, and this worked well. But I tried angling them out further and came up with some extra advantages.

    It takes a little getting used to not seeing part of your car. However, when I was teaching driving, on the very first lesson we showed the student that there were areas at the front, back and sides of the car that could not be seen. We all get accustomed to this and the brain takes over.

    The same goes for the side mirrors. At first, I pulled up beside a parked car on a side street and positioned my vehicle to mimic where I would be with another car in my blind spot. I then moved the mirror out until the parked car came into view. Then I repositioned my car and had the parked car in my blind spot again. Again I adjusted the mirror. I eventually came to the point where the blind spot was virtually non-existent because the automobile beside me was either in the rear view mirror or the side mirror.

    I did some further testing in real conditions during both city and freeway driving. It was necessary to tweak the position of the mirrors a bit and, as mentioned earlier, there was some discomfort at the beginning when I could not see my own car in the side mirror. That quickly went away, however, and I found there was an added advantage on highways with 3+ lanes since I could now see cars two lanes over changing into the lane beside me.

    The only caveat seems to be the potential for overconfidence in the mirrors. With an expanded view, I would be afraid that drivers might trust their mirrors TOO MUCH and neglect to still do a blind spot check — something that is ALWAYS going to be necessary no matter how you set up your mirrors.

    • Side mirrors should not show your car because it unnecessarily limits your field of vision. Pushing the mirrors farther out effectively eliminates the blind spot (though you still need to check your blindspot for cars entering from two lanes over)

      Popular opinion has led to widespread improper use of mirrors (showing your car).

      I disagree with this article because it is trying to maintain an old habit that has been regularly challenged in recent times. There is no need for you to see your own car, potential crashes from behind can be seen from your inside rearview.

  5. […] Having the side mirrors angled so you can see down the side of your vehicle can also help you leave a parked position. If you’re parked on the street and have a large vehicle parked behind you, your rear view mirror is useless as all you can see in it is the parked vehicle. If angled correctly, you can use the side mirror to see if there’s a vehicle approaching from behind. This will give you the needed information to pull away from the curb safely. Having the mirrors angled much further away from the vehicle won’t allow you to do that. ( ) […]

    • I have to disagree. As per your response, I tried parking in front of a truck with different mirror placements … and seeing down the side of my own car presented no advantage at all. You may have angled the mirrors out too far … don’t forget, it takes some experimentation to find where to position the mirrors for the greatest coverage.

      I taught people to see part of their own car as well, thinking that the reference point was necessary. But one of the books I read about advanced driving techniques way back then stipulated that the mirrors should be angled all the way out. I dismissed this without even bothering to try (my mind was already made up!)

      I eventually did try it and found that having the mirrors all the way out was uncomfortable and didn’t really eliminate the blind spot. So I abandoned it and went back to the way I had been teaching my driving students.. However, I revisited the idea several years later with an open mind … and, as outlined, I found that the truth was somewhere in between. You really don’t need to see your own car to use the side mirror most effectively.

      I think we CAN both agree that the mirror check alone will not give you the needed information when pulling away from a parked position — a blind spot check is vital to see if there are any cars, cyclists or pedestrians coming from a driveway across the street.

  6. Hi Scott,

    I just came across a video from the American Automobile Association, CarFit Program. They use a slightly different method for adjusting the side mirrors and the rear view mirror. It’s called the B.G.E. Method.

    I’m finding that with age and arthritis, turning my neck to right is a bit difficult. Also, if you have a very tall or large person sitting in the passenger seat, it blocks a good portion of the back rear window (especially a smaller car).

    Your advice?

  7. […] Read here what a Young Driver’s instructor thinks about this. […]

  8. The best method of adjusting mirrors depends on the car. The interior mirror should in any case show the entire rear window.

    The driver’s side mirror should be opened so that the silver of the car just disappears out of view. Opening it so the silver shows is too narrow, but opening it so you put your head against the glass to see the silver is too wide.

    The passenger’s side mirror is where it changes from car to car. In some cars it is symmetrical to the driver’s side mirror and should be adjusted likewise. In others, however, it is smaller and requires a wider adjustment, so you have to turn your head almost 90 degrees (or place it in the middle of the cabin) to see the sliver.

    Adjusting side mirrors to show silver provides a sense of “orientation” because you can see the edges of your own car. However, such a “hint” is usually only needed in “precision maneuvers” like reversing, in which case slightly tilting the head or the mirrors (which you would have to do anyhow) would do.

    While constant mirror checks, gentle shoulder checks and other means help eliminate blind spots, but these do not reduce the need for maximum coverage via the mirrors, on the contrary.

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