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Matt Seaton column: Doored in the USA

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Whether you’re practising or preaching, it’s always worthwhile taking time to slow down and think about how you ride through the city. Matt Seaton comments on the travails of New York City riding

Photographs: Rouleur
Matt Seaton ident

I got doored recently. It was one of the slowest collisions you could imagine. I was coasting to a stop at a red light at the intersection of 40th Street with 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. With a whole lane to myself on the right, and just one car stopped at the light in the middle lane, I didn’t give it quite the usual wide berth as I rolled to a halt.

 

Just as I got there, the front passenger door was flung open. I began to brake but I was right on top of it. In one respect, I was lucky: I was going so slowly that I wasn’t at risk of being flung headfirst into the door and being treated to some improv cosmetic surgery. But the very edge of the door connected with the first knuckle on my left hand, which was clamped on the brake lever, and tore it open.

 

It was a teenager travelling with his dad who’d impetuously hopped out at the light. I swore at him and shook my bleeding hand in his direction. But really, what are you going to do? He was just a kid: scared, mortified and completely at a loss. I didn’t want to look too closely at the wound, for fear of actually finding myself looking right into the joint. But I took a quick glance that told me it was probably not a lawsuit situation. I wrapped a handkerchief around the throbbing wound and, shaken but not in shock, set off home.

 

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By the next morning, it was clear that it needed stitches. Which was annoying, and cost me a $50 deductible and my medical insurer some absurd number of hundreds of dollars. Now, a couple of months later, I have a slightly misshapen knuckle, to go with the various scars, lumps and bumps one picks up along the way in life. Not the end of the world. Even salutary, I would say: a reminder that however smart you think you are about anticipating other road users’ folly, you cannot predict the full spectrum of stupid and careless.

 

This was only the second time I’ve been doored. The last time, more than 20 years ago, in London, I was luckier still. Similar circumstances: a passenger getting out of a car that was in the middle of the road, not pulled over to the side. It, too, was a low-speed collision and this time, I just ran into the inside panelling of the door. As a result, the door got the worst of it: its hinges buckled by being forced past their maximum extent. Not my problem.

 

I’ve learned in New York, though, that the odds of getting doored are multiples higher than in London, where generally drivers and car passengers are somewhat more aware of cyclists’ presence and where it’s more customary for cars and cabs to pull over for passengers to disembark. Not so in NYC, where in pretty much any lane, even the middle of a six-lane avenue, someone may dismount from either side of a temporarily stationary car. There is also no cultural norm about pulling over to the side to let passengers in or off. And there is precious little enforcement: even where a dangerous exit from a vehicle has resulted in a dooring incident, figures from the Department of Motor Vehicles suggest that only a hundred or so tickets are handed out for this specific violation each year statewide — for an offense that results in, conservatively estimated, at least one cyclist casualty per day in New York City.

 

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In short, it’s commuter-traffic roller-derby mayhem out there. And for the cyclist, the only rule is every man for himself: don’t ride in the “door zone” if you can help it.

 

Things are no better in other US cities. It is estimated that in Boston, nearly a quarter of bike accidents (sic) are caused by dooring. In Chicago, a similar rate of one-fifth of bike crashes were attributed to doorings.

 

When a young woman was killed in 2016 in a dooring incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a retired doctor and long-time cyclist there named Michael Charney launched a campaign to have the “Dutch Reach” included as a default in driver education. This is the practice, long taught in the Netherlands, of using the hand on the opposite side of the door to pull the latch, which forces drivers to turn their torsos and heads and encourages a look behind before opening the door.

 

Six months into Dr. Charney’s Dutch Reach Project, the effort had started to pay off, with coverage on public radio and popular podcasts like 99% Invisible. A video about the reach made by the web producers of Outside Magazine has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. In February, the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents adopted the advice for its Road Safety site.

 

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All good, but I’m not holding my breath that legions of New York drivers will soon pick up the habit. Though I suppose it’s possible all the ones I see looking at their smartphones while driving might be learning about the Dutch Reach. I place my hopes more in the heft of bike-hire scheme Citibikes and the renters’ efficacious lack of dooring-risk awareness to do the driver education. It won’t take too many collisions with one of those tanks for car-proud motorists to develop some self-preserving caution.

 

In the meantime, I need to teach myself to practice what I’m preaching. Because you know what they say: door unto others as you would be doored by.

 

This column was first published in Rouleur 17.3