Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Starting in January, American traffic safety organizations like AAA will teach motorists how to better avoid hitting passing bicyclists with car doors.
For people who bike on city streets, moving cars are pretty scary: They stop short, swerve suddenly, and make right-hook turns at intersections. But parked cars pose a serious threat, too, because that’s how cyclists get doored.
There’s an extremely easy way for a driver to mitigate these dreaded encounters between car doors and passing bicyclists: Open the door with the right hand, rather than the left, which forces the driver to swivel around and give a quick rearwards glance into the traffic lane.
Some traffic safety advocates refer to the maneuver as the “Right Hand Reach.” Michael Charney, a retired doctor in Massachusetts who has perhaps become the technique’s top evangelist, popularized the term “Dutch Reach,” since it’s a common practice in the Netherlands. Americans are slowly getting the hang of it, too, as more cyclists take the streets in major cities. Starting in January, a number of organizations, including AAA and the National Safety Council, will teach the reach to both driver-side and passenger-side vehicle users in a range of traffic safety courses, the New York Times recently reported.
“We’ve increased our content regarding sharing the roads with cyclists and other vulnerable road users quite a bit,” William Van Tassel, AAA’s manager of driver training operations, told Mobility Lab this week. “[Cycling] could easily be something that grows as a mode of transportation as we move forward, so we’d like to stay ahead of that if we can.”
The Netherlands is known to take bike safety very seriously, and has one of the lowest rates of bike fatalities in the world. To watch out for the 30 percent of commuters who pedal to work, generations of Dutch drivers have been taught to open car doors with a mindful pivot. “It’s just what Dutch people do,” Fred Wegman, a professor emeritus of traffic safety at Delft University of Technology, told the Times. “All Dutch are taught it. It’s part of regular driver education.”
Doorings seem to be one of the most common types of cyclist collisions in a host of North American cities. A study in Vancouver found that cars flung open into traffic represented 15 percent of total bike crashes between 2007 and 2012; in San Francisco they made up 16 percent of bike injuries and collisions between 2012 and 2015. Doorings have been on the rise in Chicago, jumping 50 percent from 2015 to 2016, even after a 2013 push by the city’s department of transportation to remind cab drivers to look before they open. After all, these collisions can be deadly.
Bike crash data is not an exact science; many collisions go reported, and not all incidents are accurately described in police reports. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t include specific circumstances in their annual bike crash count. But as cycling becomes more popular in the U.S., and vehicle-miles keep ramping up, more people are getting dinged and dying: 783 cyclists were killed in collisions with passenger vehicles in 2017, according to NHTSA data. That’s just slightly below the record high of 2016, when 852 people died.
Virtually every major U.S. city has pledged to eliminate road fatalities with some version of a “Vision Zero” campaign. Similarly, Van Tassel told Mobility Lab that including the door-opening technique in AAA’s curriculum is part of a broader shift in driver education to emphasize road safety for all road users, not just people behind wheels.
So far, the goal of zero traffic deaths has proved quixotic: More vehicles on the roads, cheap gas, the proliferation of driver distraction, and the advent of ride-hailing have all combined to make American roads yet more lethal, despite vast improvements in automotive safety. A simple twist before swinging the door could help—not only to prevent accidents, but also to remind drivers that sharing the road doesn’t stop after they’ve turned off the engine.