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Shoulder Checking and the Road Test
So exactly what is a "shoulder check" anyway?
Is it turning your head around to double check what you see here?
This page uses a question and answer format to go through "mirror checking" and "shoulder checking" in the Class 7 and Class 5 road tests in British Columbia.
But it is helpful to anyone looking for answers on how mirrors and shoulder checking keep you safe.
It assumes that all windows and mirrors give a clear view, and that the mirrors are correctly adjusted. Though it's applicable to all drivers in general, the importance increases if the driver is wearing sunglasses or prescription glasses, especially if the glasses have the modern-style frames which badly block a driver's peripheral vision.
It does not pertain to backing (reversing) maneuvers.
I've heard that lots of people fail the test for not shoulder checking before changing direction, but not on mirror checking. Is that true?
During road tests, shoulder checking is extremely important. Failing a road test due to lack of shoulder checking is common, whereas failing due to lack of mirror checking is almost unheard of.
Knowing that fact, some people jump to a hasty conclusion -- that you don't need mirrors.
Don't need mirrors? Seriously?
It seems to make no sense to an experienced driver that a person can pass a road test without ever checking a mirror, even once.
But the ICBC people (British Columbia's DMV) who developed the tests have an explanation.
In fairness, examiners can't reliably mark people for failing to mirror check because examiners can't be completely sure if the mirror(s) were seen. By comparison, if a driver doesn't turn his head, then conclusively a shoulder check was not done.
Are they actually telling people not to use mirrors?
No, of course not. The problem is that examiners are implying, by omission, that mirrors don't need to be used before changing direction. They say "you have to signal and shoulder check" (sometimes the order is reversed) giving the impression that mirror checking is unnecessary.
Most people hearing this from an examiner will interpret it in one of two ways, and both ways mean trouble:
(a) that you only need to check for vehicles in the blind spot, which ignores the risk of vehicles coming up quickly from behind that won't be detected with a shoulder check alone...
(b) that drivers should turn all the way around and look all the way back, which increases the risk of not seeing a hazard ahead.
Either of those can get you into an accident.
Okay, then what exactly is a shoulder check?
In its teaching materials, ICBC does say that mirrors need to be used before a change of direction, to see what's coming up quickly from behind.
It teaches that a shoulder check must also be done to catch the area the mirrors can't cover -- the "blind spot" -- about forty-five degrees over the driver's shoulder -- not all the way back. (References farther down the page.)
And while it's correct that a shoulder check catches what the mirrors can't, the reverse is equally true. Mirrors catch what the shoulder check can't.
Both are easily demonstrated.
For example, when a big truck is following your car closely, you can see much farther back on either side by using the side mirror than you can by turning your head. The difference is huge. And if a vehicle is catching up quickly in the next lane, the difference could save a life.
Look at this photo and caption. Many people, even with years of experience, just do not grasp this idea.
The rearview (inside) mirror will be completely blocked by the truck behind. If you turn your head to try to look, the truck is still in the way. But the side mirror sees past the truck, to show any vehicle coming dangerously fast.
But -- don't people say the shoulder check is the "real check?"
Unfortunately, some people tell you that shoulder checking is, in the end, the "real check" -- that a driver always needs to "turn around and really look."
In general, this will only be true in situations when your car is not parallel with the traffic -- meaning that if your car is at an angle instead of straight, the mirrors don't show the normal view.
Don't some people say you can adjust your mirrors so you eliminate the blind spots?
The people making that claim are oversimplifying. They're talking about one situation only and ignoring others. You can minimize blind spots but you can never eliminate them, so a brief shoulder peek is still necessary.
For a proper explanation, go to our "Adjusting Mirrors" page via the menu on the right.
What about the shoulder check before a right turn after stopping?
Before making a right turn when the car is moving very slowly, or is stopped, ICBC requires the driver to check to be sure nothing -- bicycle, jogger, pedestrian -- is catching up on the right side
Again, the same advice applies -- you should never just check the blind spot, because a cyclist or longboarder could be closing very quickly, especially going downhill (a cyclist going 50 km/h is catching up at 45 feet per second). You should always mirror check first. In this case the right side mirror is very helpful.
The check for bicycles and joggers should not be the final check. Traffic movement often changes suddenly, even while a driver is in mid-turn, so the bicycle and jogger check should never be the final check. Intersection traffic is the final check.
What about checking before turning left?
Before making a left turn, the driver should check to make sure no vehicle is passing on the left. If a faster vehicle is catching up quickly from straight behind or in the left lane, the shoulder check alone will not pick up the passing vehicle, but the mirror(s) will.
But if a jogger or cyclist is catching up over on the left sidewalk, only the shoulder check will pick that up, because it is in the blind spot. Again, the same advice applies -- check the blind spot, but check the mirror first.
What about when I open my door?
A driver should check for cyclists and traffic before opening the door.
If the vehicle parked behind is a vision blocker, such as a van, a fast-moving cyclist going downhill and riding close to the parked cars might not be detected with a shoulder check alone. (With a van parked behind your car, you can see much farther back by using the left side mirror than by turning your head. Try it and see. The difference is unmistakable.)
So the driver should check the mirror and do a shoulder check.
What could examiners do differently?
Any time an examiner explains marking a person for failing to (signal and) shoulder check, the examiner could say, "We recommend you check the mirrors first to see behind, then signal, then shoulder check. But we only mark you for (the signal and) the shoulder check."
As taught in ICBC materials, shoulder checking should be a blind spot check, covering the area the mirror(s) do not cover.
Instead, as currently marked in road tests, and as taught by some driving schools because driving schools "teach for the test," shoulder checking without mirror checking may seem okay -- may get you through the road test. But it could also get you into an accident.
The information above is intended to clarify a topic which many learner drivers find confusing. Select Driving School assumes no responsibility for any misunderstanding, misinterpretation or misapplication of the above procedures by persons accessing this material.
ICBC teaching materials:
Learn to Drive Smart manual (Safe Driving Guide)
Tuning Up manual (for learners and co-drivers)
Both of the above are available in print and also online at icbc.com.
Also helpful are videos of examiners' driving tips at http://www.icbc.com/road-safety/safer-drivers/roadsense-tips (great tips every learner driver should see).
Also, ICBC has an online quiz for people ready for a road test, showing common driving errors that often cause trouble in the test. The quiz has several questions and answers explaining that shoulder checking without mirror checking is not good. It's at
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Last updated October 12, 2016.