Driving Mastery

Turn Passion into Glory

1.5 - Field of View

Having full attention on the task of driving requires a 360 degree view of one’s surroundings. The forward view is the most important, however, it is also critical to know if there is space to the right or left to move into an adjacent lane for passing or emergency maneuvers. It is also important to see any dangers that may come from behind or to evaluate when a car is moving into your proximity, which might limit your available options.

Many of us have been taught to look over our shoulders when merging or changing lanes. This is a tendency that we must minimize, if not eliminate, because looking over our shoulder requires taking our focus away from the principle field of view in front of us. Furthermore, we do not have this luxury when driving a racecar. We are grateful for the development of containment seats and head-and-neck restraints for driver safety, however these obstruct our head movement (by design) and obstruct our visibility. As a rule, it is best to maintain front visibility in your peripheral vision even while scanning around the car and in the mirrors.

You may have been taught to adjust your mirrors so that you can see your car’s fenders or door handles as spacial references. These references are unnecessary and use up a lot of the limited mirror field of view. When you see people move forward in their seat to look through their side mirrors, you can be sure that they have not adjusted their mirrors properly. This technique may help drivers see what is in their blind spot but it is better to reduce or eliminate the blind-spots in the first place.

With proper mirror adjustment, a driver can have nearly 360 degrees of visibility without moving his head except to scan the side-view mirrors. At the very least he will reduce blind spots to a minimum so that no vehicle can hide form view. Some cars have enough mirror and enough adjustment to eliminate blind-spots altogether. In other cars we must be satisfied with minimizing the blind-spot and recognize where the blind-spots are in order to avoid surprises.

Racecars typically use wide-angle convex or multi-panel rearview mirrors to increase visibility but this is not necessary in a street car. Additionally, many cars designed for the street have very large C-pillars (the section of the vehicle body between the rear window and side windows). Engineers attempt to maximize visibility but oftentimes design and marketing preferences prevail. These large sections of reduced visibility can negate the benefit of a wide-angle rear-view mirror. Fortunately, we can adjust our mirrors to practically eliminate the C-pillar obstruction.

Mirror adjustment is best performed with objects around to use as references. These objects should be roughly one car length behind and half a car width to the side. For safety sake, adjust the mirrors while stationary. We may consider a variety of objects to identify when adjusting the mirrors: cones or trees are helpful as are walls with identifiable references. However, the best method is to back into a garage or into a parking space with cars in each of the five adjacent spaces around the car: right, right-rear, rear, left-rear & left. A parking space with an island behind is preferred to get the proper spacing. This example will be used for further discussion.

After the proper driving position is achieved (see previous chapter) adjust the rear view mirror for maximum visibility through the rear window. This is pretty straight-forward. Take note of the items that you can see at the extremities of your rearview visibility. Now adjust the side mirrors to eliminate the blind-spots. This is the more difficult task, which is explained in more depth here.

For continuity sake, let’s start with the driver side mirror and repeat the exercise with the passenger side mirror. The driver side mirror is more prone to blind-spots because of the small angle of reflection and proximity to the driver. Passenger side mirrors often have a convex shape to increase their field of view, which is the reason for the label: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” If you have manually adjusted mirrors, then it is best to find an assistant. Move the mirror inward until you can see the side of your car. This gives us a reference point for your adjustment. Now move the mirror outward until the side of your car is no longer visible. You can get more field of view by slightly tilting your head toward the mirror and adjusting until the side of your vehicle is again no longer visible. Repeat the same process for the passenger side mirror.

Next, use the references around you to identify blind spots. In the example of cars in a parking lot, the rearview mirror will likely show the entire rear vehicle as well as some of the right-rear and left-rear cars. You might also see overlapping sections of these rear-right and rear-left cars in the rearview and sideview mirrors. Now turn your head toward the driver side mirror and turn your eyes toward the adjacent parked car. Using your peripheral vision, identify a reference on the adjacent car as far back as you can see: a rear tire, a door handle, the C-pillar, etc. Next, scan the driver side mirror to see if you can identify that same reference point. Chances are you will not be able to see part of the adjacent car in both your peripheral vision and the mirror. Any section of the adjacent car that is not visible in either the sideview mirror or your peripheral vision is in your blind spot.

Now comes the compromise, which becomes an individual drivers choice. How much are you willing to turn your side mirrors away from the side of your car? If you turn your side mirror out enough to eliminate the blind spot on the adjacent car, then you will create a blind spot between what you see in your rearview mirror and what you see in your side-view mirrors. However, this is less critical than you may think. It is very difficult for a whole car to hide in the blindspot between your rearview and sideview mirrors. It is much more likely that a car can hide in a blindspot between your sideview mirror and your peripheral view if the mirrors are not properly adjusted. Being able to see a car in this region is far more critical as a lack of visibility here can cause an accident while changing lanes or passing traffic. On the other hand, having confidence in your field of view will allow you to make emergency maneuvers with certainty that you know where other cars are and where your escape routes are.

Racers have different priorities. In wheel-to-wheel racing, cars come within inches of each other while battling for position. In this case, the racer wants to be able to see how close the other car is. This does not mean that a racer needs to see the side of their car. If a racer’s mirror is adjusted properly, then they will know how closely the edge of their mirror corresponds to the side of their car.

Some people say that they need to see the side of their car in order to gauge the distance from references on the road such as lane markers or curbs. These references should be established in your forward visibility and then gauge your vehicle’s distance from these objects using your spacial awareness. We typically feel initial discomfort when positioning the mirrors away from seeing the door handles or fenders: we are reorienting our spacial awareness with our car. It requires intuition as well as vision and this is actually a good skill to develop.

Remember that you can still check the proximity of your field of view to the side of your vehicle by tilting your head slightly. If any object or vehicle is so close to your vehicle that you have to see the side of your vehicle, then there has been a breakdown in your awareness and attention prior to that moment.

One important consideration is the way that blind spots affect visibility when backing up. With properly adjusted mirrors, it may be possible to back up by scanning between rear-view and side-view mirrors. Nonetheless, it is much better to move your head to look around and over your shoulders to scan your surroundings at low speed when reversing than to compromise your visibility during the other 99% of your driving duty. You may want more sense of your vehicle’s extensions during parking maneuvers. In this case, adjust your mirrors specifically for the low speed task at hand and remember to re-adjust your mirrors prior to getting back on the open road. Mirrors that auto-adjust when reverse gear is selected can be very helpful to provide the best of both worlds.

A note for drivers of convertibles: adjust the mirrors with the top up first to insure optimal visibility under all conditions and then verify the visibility with the top down to make adjustments and compromises as needed. Unfortunately, many convertibles have very small rear windows or the rear window has aged to the point of becoming nearly opaque, reducing the effectiveness of the rear-view mirror. In this case, the side mirrors will have to be adjusted for additional rear visibility in order to compensate for the lack of visibility in the rear view mirror. This is also true when towing or hauling something that obstructs the rear-view mirror. Additionally, some cars have no rearview mirror at all or are severely obstructed due to their mid-mounted engine or aerodynamic wings. These situations require a major compromise in visibility and blind-spots are inevitable. Using larger side-view mirrors, convex, multi-focal or fish-eye mirrors can reduce the potential for blind-spots but they also require the driver to adapt to the visual and spacial distortion from such mirrors.

Take time to get comfortable with the proper seating position and mirror adjustment. The adjustments that we’ve made may feel foreign and uncomfortable. With time, they will feel as natural as any previous adjustments, I can assure you. In the meantime, adapting to your new environment will take up some mental bandwidth so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and create a situation where there is no bandwidth left for emergencies.