A Moment of Science

How A Rear-View Mirror Works

You're driving along at night and suddenly you're blinded by light. You flick the tab on your rear-view mirror... what happens next?

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Photo: net_efekt (flickr)

You're rear-view mirror is not just one mirror, it is actually two reflective surfaces.

You’re driving at night when, suddenly!, you’re blinded by a piercing light from somewhere above.  A car has driven up behind you, and its headlights–reflected in your rear-view mirror–are dazzlingly bright. You flick the little tab beneath your mirror and the reflected headlights dim. Have you ever wondered how your rear-view mirror does this?

Two Mirrors

Actually, your rear-view mirror is not just one mirror–it has two reflective surfaces. At the back is a regular, shiny mirror. Right in front of this primary mirror, however, is a thin, glass wedge which reflects only about four percent of the incoming light.

Imagine holding a plate of glass in front of a regular mirror–you’d still see your reflection in the mirror, but you’d also see a fainter reflection from the plate of glass. In a rear-view mirror, this glass surface is a wedge, pointing somewhat downward.

With the mirror in its normal position, the glass surface points down into the driver’s seat. During the day you don’t notice this faint reflection of your lap because the reflection from the main mirror–pointing out the rear window–is so much brighter.

All About Angles

When you flip the switch at night, you change the angle of the whole setup. Now the primary surface is pointing up at the dark ceiling of your car, and the glass wedge points out the rear window. You can still see the headlights behind you, but since the glass wedge only reflects a fraction of the light, they appear much dimmer.

Read More: The New York Times Second Book of Science Questions and Answers (Random House, Inc.)

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