The more I test drive new cars, the more I realize that rear visibility is becoming an afterthought. Rear windows are shrinking and the rear view mirror is becoming more obstructive as its usefulness fades.
Here's a for instance: we own a 2000 Honda Civic LX and it has great rear visibility through both the rear-view mirror and the side mirrors. Fast forward 12 years to the roughly comparable (in size and shape) 2012 VW Passat TDI currently in my driveway as a loaner. The rear view mirror is almost entirely useless on this car, putting all of the emphasis on the side mirrors for rear visibility. What's worse is that turning your head to the left to see over your shoulder in a lane change presents you with a huge door pillar so you see “ABS Airbag” stamped into the plastic fitting, but no road.
It's nice to know that airbag is there, though, to cushion me when I turn into some poor slob who's driving in my left-side blind spot..
Many people, when asked about this, are nonchalant about the problem of rear visibility. Truckers and former truck drivers, such as myself, however, are extremely sensitive and even paranoid about it. “If you can't see it, you'll hit it,” said my driving instructor during my trucking school days. “So get out and make sure it isn't there first. The fastest way to get fired is to be a lazy backup artist.” I pointed out that showing up to work drunk might be faster, but Harry just gave me the evil eye he usually favored me with and went on with the lesson in safety.
Many new cars are attempting to make up for this extreme safety hazard by including backup cameras so that you can see behind you via a dash-mounted screen – usually the central console TV-sized all-in-one screens new cars like to sport. The problem? These make you look DOWN instead of back and they also tend to get drivers in the habit of not using the side mirrors when backing, focusing our attention on the little 7” square television instead. Personally, when I use these, I'm always waiting for one of the Muppets to pop up for entertainment.
“Mahna mahna.. you're backing up! Mahna mahna.. don't hit that pole! Mahna mahna.. you're backing up, you're backing, you're backing up.. right.. now.”
Those backup cameras also don't do much for you when you're actually driving. So why are rear windows shrinking? Mostly it's aerodynamics, but new safety standards are to blame as well.
The more slithery shape of today's cars means that they have a steeper slope to the roofline, especially at the rear, giving air an easier path towards the tail. This creates a steeper angle for the back glass, which in turn shortens its viewable area.
Safety requirements make some of the car's pillars wider to accommodate airbags. Many manufacturers are lightening the strength in the door pillars and thickening the rear pillars to compensate. This further shrinks rear visibility, but makes it easier to retain style and a sense of openness in the cabin by making the central pillars thinner.
Design trends are further shrinking glass too, as a look at the current lineup of sedans from most of the major manufacturers will show. To improve side impact safety, the belt line (door height) was raised on most smaller and medium-sized cars. This lead to a trend of narrowing (“slitting”) the side and rear windows to give an overall impression of sleek speed.
So will this trend reverse itself? It doesn't appear to be in the works. If anything, it's continuing and will eventually lead to the near or total elimination of the back window. The rear view mirror, of course, will remain since it's required by highway safety laws – which change at a rate comparable to a Smart ForTwo attempting to merge onto the freeway.
Which may be a good thing, since those who shave or put on makeup during their commute will still have that handy tool centered on their windshield. You know. For safety.