“The point of the door caught me just here,” the seasoned cyclist told me, prodding himself in the chest. “Broke two ribs, collapsed my lung, it was ages before I was back on the bike.”
“I was luckier,” said another old campaigner. “I hit the middle of the door, and wound up on the driver’s lap, jammed against the steering wheel.”
Not the kind of conversation you like to hear at dawn, just before going on your first club ride. I’d only been riding for a few months, and was new to the many dangers of cycling – especially riding on busy urban and suburban roads.
Any cyclist riding along a street lined with parked cars faces an unenviable choice. They can either ride well clear of the zone where car doors might open, possibly raising the ire of the motorists behind. Or they can hug the line of cars, giving motorists more space to pass – but risking their lives if it all goes wrong, as this alarming video shot in the US shows:
Many cyclists nevertheless see riding in the door zone as the lesser of two evils. “I keep a good eye out for anyone in a car who might be about to open a door,” they’ll say.
But keeping your eyes on the road while studying every parked car’s interior is extremely difficult at anything over trundling pace. Modern cars are hard to see into, with their louvered or tinted windows and multiple headrests. Sure, it’s easy to notice a car that’s just stopped – but what about a driver who stopped, then sat checking their phone messages before hurriedly flinging open the door without looking?
“The leading cause of adult cycling hospitalisations and police reports is the car door,” says Patrick Jones, director of BikeWise, which runs courses in commuter cycling for the City of Sydney. Not only are cyclists injured by slamming into the door, they are often then catapulted into the street, to be run over by other cars.
Jones says the key is to choose the best position to cycle, depending on the road and traffic conditions, and riding both assertively and predictably, as demonstrated by a training video he made:
But is it legal to take the middle of the lane? The law says one must stay “as near as practicable to the far left side of the road” – a ruling that applies to cars as well.
“The door zone is not a practicable place to ride,” says Jones. “Certainly not at speed.”
And if a door is opened into a cyclist’s path, causing a collision, who is to blame? The law is unequivocal in this instance: people are obliged to open doors with care, and any resulting collision is the fault of the door opener.
Some years ago, my sister-in-law was involved in a dooring: but since she was in a car herself, all it caused was a lot of excitement for my young nephew, strapped into the back seat, and some annoying damage that was paid for by the door opener’s insurance.
There was never any question of who was to blame – but somehow, many people seem to assume that bicycles are second-class road users with a disproportionate responsibility for accidents.
This dooring issue has been a hot topic in Melbourne in recent weeks, with the identification of 10 roads where the majority of incidents take place, and a push by Bicycle Network Victoria to have fines for dooring offences increased.
Improved infrastructure, especially on roads favoured by cycle commuters, will help. And education of all motorists about the dangers of dooring is urgently needed.
But ultimately, a cyclist’s first approach, as a vulnerable road user, should be to look after themselves. If you're looking to upskill, there are courses offered, some of them free, in Sydney and in Melbourne.
So how much space should one leave when passing parked cars?
“We’ve got a chant for the kids,” says Jones. “The width of a door, and a little bit more.”
Stick to that, and avoiding a nasty dooring should be child’s play.
Have you been doored? How much effort do you make to stay out of the door zone?
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