Atlantic Cities

One Simple Tip That Could Save a Cyclist's Life

One Simple Tip That Could Save a Cyclist's Life
Elvert Barnes/Flickr

The other day when I came out of my house in Brooklyn, an ambulance was just pulling up to the curb around the corner from me. A crowd of people had gathered on the sidewalk, and the story quickly started to come out: a young man on a bicycle had been knocked down when the driver of a delivery van opened his door into the cyclist’s path.

The victim was conscious and moving all his limbs when I saw him being loaded onto the stretcher, and there was no blood on the scene. But from the way he was acting – clearly in pain and favoring one side – it looked like he might have broken or at least dislocated his shoulder or arm.

Getting "doored" by drivers or passengers exiting a car is one of the greatest hazards facing a person on a bike in the city. It’s also one of the most unnecessary. In Chicago, which has led the way in documenting such crashes in the United States, there were 250 doorings in 2012 – up from 170 in 2011. You can see a map of the 577 such incidents reported in the city between 2009 and 2012 at WBEZ’s website.

Doorings can easily kill a cyclist, as in the case of the 23-year-old Brooklyn woman who was killed when she fell under a bus after being doored in 2010 (that driver allegedly left the scene to go to a baby shower after completing her parking job). In Chicago last October, 32-year-old Neill Townsend – an experienced bike commuter – was hit and killed by a tractor-trailer when he swerved to avoid being doored on his way to a work meeting. There are countless similar cases.

The saddest thing about these cases is that dooring is perhaps the most preventable conflict between drivers and cyclists. For the person on the bike, staying out of the "door zone" by riding farther from the line of parked cars is the best solution.

But the onus should really be on the person exiting the car. Chicago recently doubled its fines for dooring violations to $1,000, which sends a welcome signal to drivers that the city takes the problem seriously. But fines won’t reverse crashes that have already happened.

Checking for cyclists should be a routine and heavily emphasized part of driver education, especially now that many more cities are encouraging cycling and installing painted bike lanes, which often put cyclists right in the door zone unless they are riding at the lane’s far edge. Using your mirrors and also turning to look over your shoulder are the best way to do it – just the way you avoid crashing when changing lanes in traffic.

But I’ve recently seen a few mentions of what seems to be the simplest and most elegant fix of all: train drivers to open their doors with their right hands when they’re exiting the car, forcing them to turn their bodies so that they are automatically looking over their shoulders (in countries with right-wheel drive, obviously, the hands would be reversed).

I’ve heard that this practice is taught to Dutch drivers as part of their education, but have recently seen that claim disputed by Dutch drivers in various comment threads. Considering how hard it is to get a driver’s license in Holland – taking between 30 and 60 lessons before you pass is not uncommon – drivers there are already much better-trained and more conscientious then they are in the U.S. Almost everyone there has spent a lot of time using a bicycle for transportation as well, and so consideration for cyclists just makes sense. So maybe Dutch drivers don’t need the right-hand-door-opening trick.

But in American cities, with an exploding population of cyclists and still-oblivious drivers, it could just be the perfect way to prevent more doorings and more deaths.

Try it yourself. Spread the word. It could save a life.

Top image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

Join the Discussion