Stop Hitting Cyclists with Your Car Door
Saving a life is as easy as checking for cyclists. So naturally nobody does it.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Getting “doored.” Along with the dreaded “right hook,” it’s probably the most persistent threat cyclists face from drivers (or their passengers) when riding in cities. If you’re lucky, colliding with an open car door will result in some slapstick or maybe a dinged top tube. If you’re not (and many dooring victims are not) you can be seriously injured or killed.
This past spring, a motorist doored Aaron Padwee on 21st Street in Queens, throwing him into the path of an oncoming driver who was operating a commercial truck without a license. Padwee did not survive. And even though a motorist who opens a car door into oncoming traffic is breaking the law, the NYPD did not file charges.
While both tragic and infuriating, this entire sequence of events is in no way surprising. Heedlessly flinging your car door open at the end of your journey is as American as leaning back and opening your pants after a big meal. And while in most places it’s generally illegal to open your car door into oncoming traffic, in practice we tend to take failing to check for cyclists before getting out of the car about as seriously as we do forgetting to put the toilet seat down after taking a leak.
For this reason, Michael Charney has been promoting a maneuver called the Dutch Reach. Sure, the suggestive name may sound like a hackneyed Goldmember reference, but it actually refers to the way Dutch drivers are taught to exit their vehicles. Here’s how the Dutch Reach works: First, you reach across your body for the handle with the hand farthest from the door, which causes you to turn your head. Next, you check for any oncoming cyclists, since now you’re looking in that direction anyway. Finally, when the coast is clear, you pull the handle, open the door slowly, and nobody dies. That’s it! (Confused? Watch the above video.)
Not only is this simple method of vehicular egress both utterly sensible and potentially life-saving, but it’s also in direct contrast to what I call the USA Surprise. That’s the technique most Americans currently use, which involves bursting through the door like you’re trying to catch your unfaithful lover in flagrante delicto—and if any cyclists wind up as collateral damage, so be it.
The Dutch Reach has gained some traction in the United States, and Massachussets and Illinios now include it in their driver’s manuals. This is encouraging, and there’s absolutely no question that the Dutch Reach should be standard procedure for every driver in all 50 states. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a meaningful number of American drivers embracing a practice that combines their two least favorite things, those being:
- Turning their heads;
- Giving a shit about cyclists.
Granted, most people probably don’t open their car doors into cyclists on purpose. After all, what self-respecting driver would risk damage to the map pocket of a Kia Sorrento? But while they may not want to have to pick your teeth out of their armrest, they’re also not particularly worried about it until it happens—nor do they need to be, since no road user is more coddled and entitled than the American driver. As a result, riding around the city is as close as you’ll ever get to being on the inside of a giant pinball machine. The doors are the flippers and guess who’s the little silver ball.
Of course, everybody plays pinball differently. Some lie in wait for the ball, fingers hovering over the buttons in anticipation. Others just pound them indiscriminately, figuring they’ll hit the ball eventually, the flippers flailing wildly in the meantime. Similarly, every driver has a different approach to dooring you. Therefore, pending mass adoption of the Dutch Reach, your best bet for winning the game of survival is to familiarize yourself with their various strategies.
There’s the driver who bursts through the car door like a club bouncer busting a cokehead in a bathroom stall. Then there’s the driver who opens the door a crack, so you figure they saw you and stopped, but really they were just futzing with the phone for a minute before stepping out and just as you pass they decide to finish the job. Luxury car drivers are often the most stealthy: for example, earlier this year I was nearly taken out by a Mercedes driver who kicked the door open with a knee-high boot whilst rummaging through a Bottega Veneta handbag. The sheer speed of the door was surprising enough, but given the deadly elegance of this particular assassination attempt, the biggest shock was that the driver didn’t turn out to be the Daryl Hannah character from Kill Bill.
Perhaps the most common dooring type is the one most symptomatic of the American condition. First, a door flies open, pushed by some unseen hand; maybe next it starts swinging shut again and requires two or three more heaves before it stays open completely. Then one ankle emerges, followed by another, and slowly—very slowly—the body of a person stiffened by years of inactivity and car dependence begins to emerge. This type of dooring isn’t a matter of carelessness; rather, it’s the consequence of a sedentary lifestyle. It’s hard to picture these drivers even turning around, much less enacting the sequence of motions that comprise the Dutch Reach.
Ultimately, however, the real reason drivers fling their doors open is that they’re used to having the roads to themselves. But that’s been changing in recent years as more people have taken to bikes, and as bike share and scooter share become more and more popular it’s really going to change in a major way, which is when you’ll finally get your Dutch Reach. Inevitably drivers will be forced to open their doors more carefully for the same reason men eventually learn to put the toilet seat down: they’re cohabitating with people who call them on their bullshit.