Side mirrors of cars in the United states have a very long warning etched on them – “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”. That seems like a lot of text for a relatively small surface. Who needs it?

Objects on the mirror are very close. (Andrey Zharkikh, Wikimedia(CC BY 2.0)

Why objects in the mirror are closer than they appear?

The function of a side mirror is to inform the driver about what is behind him, in areas that are not easily observable directly. You can’t just turn your whole body to make sure it’s safe to switch lanes. And when you’re parking a car, the information you get through windows is usually not enough to ensure safe maneuvering. Side mirrors are obviously very important and convenient, but their side is limited by aerodynamics and safety requirements. That is why they are usually convex.

People stop noticing that warning very quickly. (Joe Mabel, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Convex mirrors, similarly to wide-angle camera lenses, allow the driver to see more of what is happening around and behind the car. They minimise blind spots, because they absorb and deliver (well, reflect) more information. The problem is that this convexity makes objects appear smaller – that is how more stuff fits on the same glass – everything is shrunken down. Your brain can be tricked into seeing a car or a tree right next to you as something very far behind. In other words, objects in convex mirrors are usually closer than they appear.

Why side mirrors in the US have that warning?

If you drive regularly, you get used to the image in your side mirrors and can gauge distances quite accurately. You already know this – if those warnings were actually that important, they would be used in Europe as well. But they are not.

At night that etched or engraved sentence is even less visible. i, kol jo neapšviečia kito automobilio žibintai. ( Mark Sebastian, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)

In fact, the main reason is not different driving habits or differences in traffic culture, but different laws of social coexistence. Courts take care of a large proportion of disputes in the United States. Even if you’re not from the US, you’ve seen that im movies – “I’m gonna sue you!” For some people suing someone is their chance of becoming rich, while others are actually looking to set things straight.

This is all to say that negligence of a car manufacturer or the Department of Transportation would create grounds for litigation. Some sixteen-year-old driver could cause a collision and later try to sue the car manufacturer or the Department of Transportation, claiming that he didn’t know that the enfornment in the mirrors is slightly distorted. That small inscription (letter height needs to be 4.8-6.4 mm) is a to prevent that kind of hassle “you knew, kid, it is written right there”.

The US has had this requirement since 1972, and Canada, India, South Korea, Nepal and other countries soon followed. Drivers in these countries don’t notice that etching anymore – they certainly don’t read that text every time they look to the side mirrors.

A similar warning in South Korea. (Scheinwerfermann, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the same reason American cars are simply littered with all kinds of safety warnings. For example, next to the vanity mirror in the sun visor there might be a warning that it should not be used while driving.

American drivers have been looking at that warning in the mirrors for so long that it has penetrated the art world. The 1994 song “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” by American singer and actor Meat Loaf is a good example of this. That phrase can also be found in books, films, and TV shows. It often describes the things that haunt us all: old age, death, global economic problems – everything is closer than it appears.


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