Failing to notice a car, a motorbike or another cyclist passing when taking a turn or not being careful enough when cycling in traffic can cost a life. A mirror is one of those tiny accessories that can actually save a life. It is a small investment and a huge gain. A bike mirror enhances your safety and boosts your confidence.
The question is whether you should get a mirror that attaches to your handlebar or to your head via your helmet or glasses.
I have experience with both types and the answer to that question isn’t black and white. Both of them have different characteristics, and can serve you in different ways, so it really comes down to your riding style and personal preference.
Helmet (or eyeglass) mirrors generally are flat and have a narrower field of view. They allow you to glance back just by focusing on them with your eyes. Because they are located at eye’s level for convenience, they block out some objects in your natural field of view. If you want to see more than what’s in its field of view, you need to move your head to get a different angle. Using a helmet mirror takes a little time to get used to.
These mirrors are attached to the traffic side of your helmet or glasses (in right hand traffic countries to the left side and in left hand traffic on the right side).
Handlebar mirrors come in various shapes and sizes, but they tend to be larger than helmet mirrors and are usually slightly convex, which results in a wider field of view. Since they are located on your bike, you need to have them adjusted properly in order to get the perfect image when you’re riding.
Both types of mirrors are made of either glass, plastic or stainless steel. Mirrors made of glass will give you a crystal clear image and mirrors made of stainless steel or plastic will give you a poorer quality image, and they also tend to scratch easily leading to even further loss of quality.
Before we jump into the pros and cons of each mirror type, here are some of the best mirrors available right now in each category.
- made of lightweight material
- 360° rotatable
- 1.37×1.76 in/4.5×7.5cm mirror
- flat mirror
- easy to mount and remove
- can be used on left and right side
Glasses mounted mirror:
Comes in two sizes: original and compact.
- easy to mount and remove
- frameless, acrylic mirror
- can be used for left and right sides
- highly adjustable: 3 pivot points
- Original: 37x29mm mirror
- Original can be mounted on helmet too
Flat handlebar mirror
- 360° Rotatable
- underbar mirror
- impact resistant nylon
- wide field of view
- 7 cm/2.75 inch diameter mirror
- Fits 17.4-22 mm diameter handlebars
- can be used on left or right side
Drop handlebar mirror
- Blast resistant glass
- Medium size
- Wide field of view
- Fits handlebars 17 mm- 21 mm diameter
- adjustable 360 degrees
- can be used for left and right sides
Pros of handlebar mirrors for commuting
Larger field of view
Handlebar mirrors are usually larger compared to helmet or eyeglass mounted mirrors. Some are designed so large that you get a full view of everything behind you.
Handlebar mirrors are generally convex to further broaden the field of view. Generally the bigger the mirror the less convex the mirror is, and the less convex it is, the better you can judge the distance because of its accuracy. A good mirror strikes the right balance.
A wider field of view is convenient since there are only two ways in which you can change what you see behind you when using a handlebar mounted mirror:
- by moving the handlebar – this also affects the direction you’re riding
- by moving your head position relative to the mirror – which is a full body movement.
It’s always there
Handlebar mirrors are mounted on the bike and once in place, they can be left there for the next ride. Most mirrors attach to the bikes with bolts and require an Allen key to remove, so you can be confident that the mirror is always going to be there to serve you. If you are the type of person who likes to set things straight without having to bother anymore, then you will appreciate this feature.
If you use multiple bikes and you use this type of mirror you should get a mirror for each bike.
Most of the handlebar mirrors are adjustable, which means that once mounted on the handlebar, you can move it around to get the perfect angle for your riding position.
Handlebar mirrors are kept away from your head and don’t interfere with your natural, forward facing field of view unlike their helmet mounted counterparts, which can cause some confusion, especially with traffic approaching from the side they’re mounted on.
Easier to get used to
Between helmet and handlebar mirrors, the latter is easier to get used to probably because of our everyday experience. Mirrors on cars, motorbikes and walls are all mounted to fix points, and we intuitively know how to best spot in them what we’re looking for.
Cons of handlebar mirrors for commuting
If your handlebar mirror attaches to the bar end and you maneuver in between cars or passing through tight spaces, you need to pay attention and get used to the handlebar not being the furthest end of the bike but the handlebar mirror is.
Another issue with bar end mirrors is that by leaning your bike against the wall may cause it to break. It happened to my mirror when I asked my son to mind my bike for a while
Image can be inaccurate
Convex mirrors give a wider field of view but when it comes to image accuracy they give a slightly inaccurate image. Objects in a convex mirror appear smaller and more distant than they are in reality. In order to make smaller mirrors usable, they are made more convex, which distorts the image more.
Large handlebar mirrors may look less stylish on the bike, but in return you can judge the distance of the objects much better.
Fuzzy image on bumpy roads
The bike is in direct contact with the road, a mirror mounted on the handlebar will absorb the vibration from the road. On low quality, bumpy roads the image can become fuzzy. So if you are commuting on particularly bumpy, low quality roads a handlebar mirror might not be your best bet.
You need to take your eyes off the road
When you ride your bike you constantly watch the road and scan what’s ahead of you to react as fast as you need to. Your time to react will be slightly longer as you need to take your eyes off the road to look at the mirror and then look back at the road again.
This could be a problem if you ride your bike on very busy roads along with many other cyclists and you need to be very alert of what’s going on around you.
Visible from one angle
You can see in the handlebar mirror what’s behind you only from a certain angle. Keep this in mind especially if you tend to move a lot while riding. To see what’s behind you will always have to look at the mirror from a certain angle as the mirror was set initially. Bigger mirrors provide better visibility from greater angles.
Pros of helmet mirrors for commuting
You always see exactly behind your head
One of the main advantages of helmet and glasses mounted mirrors is that you can actually scan what’s behind by moving your head. The field of view is smaller than in handlebar mirrors, but if you move your head a little bit to the left or to the right you can scan what’s behind you.
Helmet and glasses mounted mirrors are mostly flat, which makes it easy to spot distant objects and to more accurately judge how far they really are. Glancing at the mirror will give you the actual distance between you and who’s coming behind, how fast he’s coming.
Easier to maneuver
If you ride in heavy city traffic regularly, you probably know and appreciate the advantage of being able to maneuver among cars, especially in rush hour. Helmet mirrors are easier to maneuver with among cars as they don’t stick out on the sides and so you need less room to pass through tight spaces.
You can keep your eyes on the road
The helmet mirrors can raise your situational awareness a great deal when you ride your bike along with many other road users in the city. You don’t have to take your eyes off the road as it is constantly there in the periphery of your field of view. So even if you glance at it you still know what’s ahead of you.
Slightly better on bumpy roads
They are mounted either to the helmet or to the glasses and so they absorb less road vibration. If your helmet is properly attached to your head. All the vibration it absorbs comes from the rider. The rider’s eyes move together with the helmet and with the mirror. That makes the image clearer.
Cons of helmet mirrors for commuting
Narrower field of view
Given that the helmet and glass mounted mirrors are really small, they tend to give you a narrower field of view (= you see less stuff in it than in most handlebar mounted mirrors).
Requires extra attention
Having the mirror on your helmet or glasses means that you need to be careful whenever you take off the helmet/glasses. It’s a good idea to take it off and put it away every time you get to work or your destination to protect it.
Can be bothering
Even though it is only in the periphery of the field of view, it’s still present and it can be annoying to have it there whether you need it or not.
Very close to the eye
Focusing from further objects to a closer one requires effort. So if you have problems with your eyesight or your eyes hurt when they are strained, you may not find these types of mirrors comfortable and useful.
Some cyclists dislike glasses mounted mirrors because they don’t like having a metal cord and piece of glass so close to the eye. Although I’m not aware of any accident involving a helmet mounted mirror, it could be a concern to you.
A mirror sticking out on your helmet or glasses definitely looks strange and gives a unique look. People are not used to seeing cyclists with mirrors mounted to their glasses or helmets. Whenever I use my helmet mirror I get asked questions all the time about what it is, how useful it is etc.
A mirror for bike commuting can be really useful. Both handlebar and helmet or glasses mounted mirrors have their pros and cons. To decide you need to weigh them and decide which one you appreciate or dislike more. In any case you will appreciate the support a bike mirror will give you.