“Just check your b****y mirrors!!!” (Part 1 of 2)

check-your-mirrors“Hi Ged and Claire, I’m getting really frustrated with my pupils not checking their mirrors, they do it sometimes when I ask or tell them to, but then go right back to forgetting again when I stop helping them.  What can I do?”

This is probably a very common frustration for a lot of ADIs, so rest assured you are not alone!  I know I’ve had the same issues in the past, too and you can feel like a bit of a nag or a broken record repeating yourself every 2 minutes!

The problem with some pupils is that no matter how many times we tell or ask them which mirrors to check, unless we keep at it, some will keep forgetting. So what can we do differently so they are less likely to ‘forget’?

I like to think there are 3 elements to effective mirror use:


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Many instructors stop after teaching this first part.  So invariably the pupils LOOK but don’t SEE.  This is more likely to happen when the instructor says things like:

Check your centre and right mirror before signalling
Which mirrors should we check?
New road, new mirrors
Remember – Mirror… Mirror… Signal
Come on, check this left mirror, you keep forgetting!

Any of these sound familiar to you?

Although these questions or commands may well instigate a mirror check, the check in itself has very little value.  The pupil is simply learning by rote, or ‘parrot fashion’.  They know they need to check them – after all, you’re there to keep reminding them!  But this is not an effective approach for long-term learning.  They are checking the mirrors because they think they have to check them to pass the driving test (and to stop your constant nagging!).  You’ll get a similar effect with chants or ‘easy reminders’ like “One Two Three” relating to centre mirror (one), door mirror (two), signal (three).  Another one we hear being used a lot on lessons is “Mirror, mirror, signal”.

Learners who are taught in this way can pass the driving test.  And afterwards, they’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief and think, “Yes! I passed! Don’t need to check my mirrors all the time now!”


Many instructors get to this part easily, although not always often enough.  This is where we start getting to the WHY.  In the ‘look’ part of the sequence, they learner looks in the mirrors but they won’t always ‘see’ what’s there.

InattentionalBlindness_021012_For the most part, the reason for this is that the learner has no idea what they are specifically looking for.  They’ve simply been told or asked to check the mirrors (as in the examples above).

So how can we direct their attention a little further?  Here are some examples of better questions to ask:

What’s going on behind?
How close is the car behind?
How fast is the car behind going?
Are there any bikes coming down on our left?
Is there anything overtaking us?”

These are much more efficient questions than some of those I used to ask in my early days as an ADI, such as, “What colour is the car behind?” [‘Red…. so what?!’].  And then there were also times when I would cover the interior mirror with my right hand and ask, “What’s behind?” These tactics don’t necessarily encourage the pupil to do much more other than check the mirrors more frequently to avoid getting caught out! There’s still no guarantee they’re considering the proximity or speed of vehicles behind.

And this brings us to a secondary issue that we need to be aware of – and that is ‘inattentional blindness’.  This is a psychological phenomenon which relates to our failure to notice unexpected visual stimuli when we are focussing on another task.  Driving demands a great deal of attention and focus for the novice driver, and their focus is largely on the control of the vehicle and the things going on in front of them.

Many of you will have seen this video (or ones similar to it) before, but if not, here’s a great illustration of inattentional blindness in action:

We could write a whole article on the perils of inattentional blindness when driving, but let’s focus back on the topic of effective mirror use for now…

In essence, we tend to notice what we are looking for – what we are expecting to see.  By asking poorly-phrased or poorly-directed questions, the learner driver does not notice the things which they should be noticing – those things which are of a high priority and could have an effect on our driving plan.  As experienced drivers and instructors, we may notice that the driver of the bus behind is glancing down at a newspaper, or that the driver of the car behind is more pre-occupied with their screaming children in the back seats than they are focussed on the fact we are braking to a stop.

driving-instructor-questionsAppropriately phrased questions will help bring these higher priority things to the learner’s attention – things which they may not have even considered paying attention to, or were ‘blind’ to due to overwhelm.

So ‘seeing’ isn’t about knowing if your pupil has checked the mirrors or even seen what’s there.  Instead, it’s about creating a connection between using the mirrors and knowing what to look out for.  It doesn’t really matter if they’ve seen the car behind, or if it’s red, blue or polka dot, what matters is that they realise they need to recognise what the car (or driver) behind is doing, e.g. distracted, driving close, approaching too quickly, overtaking, etc.

Now the pupil is looking and seeing what’s there, they’ve started to understand WHY there’s a need to check the mirrors… or have they?


If the pupil knows what they’re looking for, it might mean they understand what to check for, but not necessarily why that’s important and how to interpret and respond to it.

Let me share a short story…

I once asked a pupil of mine to turn right at the next traffic light controlled junction.  We were travelling along a dual carriageway and we needed to change lanes.  She looked in her centre and right mirror. “Great,” I thought to myself, “she knows which mirrors to check and so she’s seen the red car travelling at high speed who’s about to overtake us”.  She then went to signal and steer.  I pulled the wheel back and cancelled the signal and said “there’s a red car there!” She replied “Yea I know!” I was gobsmacked.  If she saw the car, why on earth did she try to change lanes as it was about to overtake us?!

Her actions and words told me that she had looked in the correct mirrors and had seen the red car, but she simply didn’t know how to respond to what she had seen.  She had actually thought the driver would let her go once she started signalling so we worked through what could have happened and what to do next time.

Fortunately this happened on a driving lesson and not after she had passed her test. Imagine that scenario on a crowded motorway! :O

The point is that until then, I didn’t realise how important it is to make sure (and not just assume) that the pupil knows how to respond to what they see in the mirrors.  It meant that I hadn’t been doing my job properly and it was a valuable lesson for me to make sure every pupil knew how to respond correctly to what they had seen.

Because this golden opportunity doesn’t present itself all that often, and because there never seems to be a cyclist coming down the left hand side when your learner is turning left, sometimes we as instructors can forget this important step in developing our learners’ effective use of mirrors. The ‘what if’ question can be the most important question to ask.

How close is the car behind?  What would you do if it was really close?
Are there any cyclists coming up on our left?  What would you do if there were?
Is there anything overtaking us?  What would you need to do if there was?

If you get a blank expression or “erm… I don’t know” as a response, then brilliant – you can save this driver from making a costly mistake once they pass their driving test!  You know that they don’t really understand the significance of using the mirrors effectively, and this can be a big enough reason for them to ‘forget’ to check and for you to keep having to remind them over and over again.
You can also explore different options and how they may need to respond:

If the driver behind was really close, what would we do differently with our speed/signal before our next turn?
What would be the benefits of doing that?

If there was a cyclist coming up quickly on our left, how might it affect the timing of our signal?
What would be the problem of signalling to turn left if he was very close to our car?”
“What if he was a lot further away? Would you do anything differently?

What would you do with your speed/signal if you were being overtaken and you wanted to turn right?
How do you think that would benefit us and the driver overtaking?

Once we turn, if the new road is clear and the car behind is following really closely, what could we do with our speed?
If the driver behind looked like he was about to overtake us, what would we do with our speed then?

ged-claire-mirrorsFinally, it’s important to notice that the diagram at the start of this article is cyclicThe process is continuous – after responding, we need to once again LOOK and SEE how the driver or cyclist behind/on our left/passing is in turn responding to our action.
Now what you should achieve is lots more value attached to mirror use.

The pupil has a deeper understanding of their importance, will want to become more aware of what’s going on around them and more importantly, will be able to make decisions on how to respond to what they see.

down arrowIn the second part of this article, we will be looking further into how being aware of the actions of other road users around us affect our learners and how they can develop strategies to deal with these situations.  Click here to read Part 2!

For now, please share your experiences!  Please let us know how you develop your learners’ effective use of the mirrors – what questions do you find get the best results?  Your comments in the box below could really help other instructors improve their skills 🙂

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