How the 'Dutch reach' could help drivers protect cyclists from 'dooring'

Dooring. ​It's a word that strikes fear into a cyclist.

You get "doored" if someone opens a car door into your path while you're riding a bike, resulting in a collision.

The outcomes are often injurious and can be fatal. 

Roads authorities tell drivers to always check their mirrors and blind spots before opening the door, to make sure no bikes or other vehicles are approaching. 

And lately, a way to help people open the door more carefully has been popping up in news reports around the world.

Going Dutch

Enter the "Dutch reach", an intriguing new name some are using for a technique that could help you focus on the world outside.

Simply open your car door with the hand that is opposite the door, explains Phoebe Dunn, the CEO of the Amy Gillett Foundation.

"If you're leading with your left hand, it's a forced turn of your body, which makes it easier to look over your shoulder, rather than opening the door with your right hand," she says.


Dave Jones, Roads and Traffic Manager of the RACV, agrees with the concept.

"There are key things anyone should do when exiting a vehicle. Check your mirrors and do a head check. The advantage of using your left hand on the door handle is it physically turns the upper part of your body, so it's a little bit easier to look over your shoulder to check your blind spot."

The method can also be useful for passengers, who don't have the benefit of mirrors.

Dunn notes that it can also prevent other distractions, for example, "reaching over to the passenger seat to grab something, such as a bag, while you open the door". 

What's in a name?

They don't call it the Dutch reach in the Netherlands, but it's a recognised technique.

Edward Douma of the Dutch Cycling Embassy (yes, there is such a thing) told me that drivers are tested during their practical exam on how they open the door.

So while the method is not mandatory, it's used by driving instructors as "a good way of teaching candidates how to exit the vehicle", he says. 

But the term "Dutch reach" has recently been popularised by Michael Charney, a retired doctor in Massachusetts, who launched a grassroots campaign to promote the method following a cyclist fatality in his city.

"Fortunately, it has some amusing connotations," he says of the term, which helped a subsequent video by Outside Online go viral.

Since then, news reports on the "Dutch reach" have been popping up around the world.

But the concept is not exactly new to Australia.

For example, opening the door with your left was a suggestion by VicRoads in an advertising campaign in 2012, when fines were increased for dooring offences in Victoria, and the tip can be found on the VicRoads website. Bicycle Network also helped lead a dooring awareness campaign in Melbourne that year, using the slogan "lead with the left" to encourage the measure. 

Jones tells me that RACV driving instructors teach the technique, and the organisation last year released a blog on dooring avoidance, with this animated video:

They don't call it the Dutch reach, but "it doesn't matter where it comes from so long as people get the message," he says.     

Dooring avoidance

While it's the responsibility of a person in a vehicle to open their door safely, what measures can cyclists follow in case they don't?

The obvious answer is to stay clear of a stationary car's door area. But this can be challenging at times, when cars are behind you, and you imagine drivers are thinking "why won't they move further to the left?"

The situation is further complicated when a bike path has been painted alongside a line of parked cars. Cyclists often seek to minimise the risk of dooring by riding just inside the white line, but even this is criticised by those who don't understand the dangers.

Apart from keeping a buffer zone, Transport for NSW's Bicycle Rider's Handbook also recommends slowing down when passing parked cars, and looking through a car's rear window "to determine whether or not an occupant is about to get out of the car". This can nevertheless be challenging if a vehicle has tinted windows or multiple headrests. 

'A complex problem'

Of course, the Dutch reach is not the definitive answer to dooring - people will always make mistakes. 

Robyn Seymour of VicRoads says that "car-dooring is a complex problem and requires a broad, multi-faceted approach to counter-measures".

The most obvious solution is improved and increased infrastructure that allows riders to stay clear of the door zone - or separates motor vehicles and bicycles entirely. There are also other awareness campaigns, such as the TAC's Rider Reminder, while car manufacturers are developing technological solutions.

But as a way of looking out for bike riders when opening a car door, going Dutch could be worth a try. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

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