‘Door prizes’ for cyclists

Bike wheel

The ‘door prize’ is apparently the most common type of accident to injure bike riders in cities. Riding along beside a row of parked cars, someone opens a door on the driver side, leaving too little time for an approaching cyclist to stop. The cyclist thus slams into the door, quite probably injuring themselves. Sometimes, it can be lethal.

Awareness seems like the first mechanism for avoiding such accidents. While it is theoretically possible for cyclists to ride in the middle of lanes, doing so requires extremely thick skin, so as to endure the endless rage of motorists who want to go faster. Cyclists can avoid door prizes by keeping an eye on whether someone is sitting on the driver’s side of a car: as well as for clues like lights being on and engine noise. Well justified concern about the door prize risk makes me do this, though I find that it makes me less situationally aware overall. Having to check one parked car after another leaves less time and mental focus for evaluating other threats, such as cars passing you on the left or making right turns in front of you.

Drivers can be aware that cyclists may be passing them and do more to check for cyclists before opening doors. Glancing at the side-view mirror and back over their shoulder only takes a moment, and will protect the people stepping out of their cars from oncoming vehicles, as well. Doing so is sometimes an explicit legal obligation, as under section 208 of the Manitoba’s Highway Traffic Act:

No person shall,

(a) open the door of a motor vehicle upon a highway without first taking due precautions to ensure that his act will not interfere with the movement of, or endanger, any other person or vehicle; or

(b) leave a door of a motor vehicle upon a highway open on the side of the vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than is necessary to load or unload passengers

Section 203 of British Columbia’s Motor Vehicle Act is similar, as is section 165 of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act. Drivers can also partially open doors for a little while, so as to make them more visible to anyone approaching.

Potentially, some kind of automated system could help. I don’t know how much it would cost, but it should be possible to set up a motion sensor that looks backwards on the driver’s side of a car. While it might sometimes be obstructed by vehicles close behind, one would think it would more likely be able to spot cyclists that drivers might have missed. Some kind of light could then give a warning against sudden door-openings, or even prevent doors on that side from being opened.

Arguably, the best solution is to isolate car and bike infrastructure from one another in city centres. I would personally be delighted if most downtown areas were car-free. There would be dramatically more social space, less noise and pollution, and arguably more of a neighbourhood feeling. In the absence of such a transition, perhaps we can aspire to more bike lanes physically separated from car traffic (by a barrier, not a painted line), as there are in the Netherlands and some other European states.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “‘Door prizes’ for cyclists”

  1. The Door Prize – “Watch for Bikes” Campaign

    No one wants a Door Prize. Every time you open your door without checking for cyclists and other traffic there is a potential for a serious collision to occur. The City of Toronto, the CAA, the Toronto Parking Authority and other partners will hand out 150,000 “Watch for Bikes” stickers to be placed on your driver side mirror. The sticker is a reminder to all car drivers to check your mirror for cyclists and other traffic. This is one prize you don’t want to win.

  2. City of Toronto Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision Study (PDF)

    “Another very frequent type of crash involved a motorist opening a vehicle door into the
    path of a passing cyclist. Drivers in their thirties are significantly over-represented. Notably,
    darkness does not seem to increase the likelihood of this type of incident…

    Almost all cases occurred on arterial roads in central areas of the city, making .the Door Prize,. as it has become known, the most frequently reported type of bicycle/motor-vehicle collision in central Toronto. In contrast to the previous type, the cyclists involved were typically adults between twenty and forty years of age. This age group can be expected to ride on the road, rather than the sidewalk, more often than children and the elderly, and therefore suffer greater exposure to the risk of this kind of collision. Since the injuries sustained were often more severe than average, this type of crash would appear to be a very serious concern for urban cyclists.

    A portion (15%) of these crashes involved cyclists passing on the right of the vehicle. Many of these vehicles were taxis, sometimes discharging passengers in the second lane, where the curb lane was occupied by parked vehicles. Taxis accounted for 7.1% of the motor vehicles involved in this collision type, compared to 3.1% of all car/bike collisions, and 5% of the car/bike collisions that occurred in the central area.”

  3. I agree that isolation is the best solution. I thus do not approve of standard bike lanes – instead we should have non-symmetrical roads where, effectively, a multi lane car road sits abreast a two lane cycle road.

    I avoid this problem by simply riding in traffic. I don’t find motorists, in Vancouver at least, get too angry. Also, it is possible to ride just to the right of the white line such that motorists can pass if the left lane is clear, and the cyclist can be far enough out to avoid crashing into an opening door.

  4. I generally disapprove of “awareness” campaigns. If the state wants to reduce “door prizes”, they merely need to extend criminal liability to motorists who injure cyclists in this way.

    “Criminal negligence causing injury or death” seems appropriate.

  5. Under Section 219 of the Criminal Code, the standard for criminal negligence is “wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.” I don’t think too many juries would say that carelessly opening your car door applies, though perhaps it should.

  6. One other sensible precaution is to make sure you are lit up properly at night.

    I frequently see people cycling around on dark evenings with nothing but reflectors. Being visible is your responsibility: whether you are a car, motorcycle, cyclist, or pedestrian.

  7. Litty, door prizes are actually markedly less common at night. Darkness isn’t really a risk factor in this case. Door prizes tend to happen during the day, especially rush hour, because high volume of cars on the road restricts cyclists to a narrow band between generally speeding traffic and parked cars, often carelessly parked and jutting out further into the narrow margin cyclists are left with. Add into this the noise of traffic and daylight obscuring lights on/in parked cars, and the danger of being doored in dayight easily exceeds that at night.

    The reality is that almost no one checks for cyclists before opening a car door. I learned that once the hard way, and since then, I’ve managed to avoid it by simply assuming, whenever I am riding next to parked cars, that any door could swing open at any time.

    When I’m cycling at night, if it isn’t pitch black, I often find using a light myself distracting, since I’m primarily looking for moving light sources.

    Besides, putting essentially all the responsibility for safety on the cyclist is just a way of ignoring the real problem, which is an almost total lack of accommodation for cyclists in transportation planning and policy.

    Drivers, as it is, aren’t expected to consider the possibility of sharing streets with cyclists. While there are many bike-friendly drivers out there, I find motorists are usually simply oblivious to cyclists and those who aren’t are often downright hostile.

    Cyclists are then expected to follow the rules of the road as if they were also cocooned in 2 tons of metal and plastic, on roads designed exclusively for cars and trucks. Meanwhile, cyclists must simply assume that any given car or truck with the right of way at an intersection will turn right without signaling, mirror/shoulder checking or even slowing down to a prudent speed.

    In the Netherlands and Denmark, bikes are typically painted black, with one reflector on the rear fender, and maybe reflectors on the pedals, plus one of those useless dynamo headlamps. Most bikes typically have only poorly maintained coaster brakes, and riders never wear helmets, or even put them on their children, who are probably riding on the handlebars anyways. Despite this, these countries remain the safest in which to ride a bike. Perhaps it has something to do with transportation infrastructure designed with heavy bike use in mind.

  8. The solution is to cycle far enough into the lane that you won’t be hit by a door if it opens. It really is that simple. This is why the BC Bikesense program states:

    “Parked cars
    Ride no closer than one metre from parked cars to avoid being hit by an opening door. The doors of some vehicle types can swing far into your lane. If you can see that the car is occupied, be particularly careful. Where cars are parked intermittently, ride in a straight line instead of swerving in and out between the parked cars. This increases your visibility and predictability for car drivers on the road.” From http://www.bikesense.bc.ca/ch4.htm

    The same page then goes on to explain why it may be sometimes safer to ride in the centre of a lane ie. Take the Lane, than to stay at the edges (accepted wisdom from couriers & experienced street cyclists, although it may work better for those who ride fast than for those who ride slowly). I would advise people who cycle on the road to read the info from the Bikesense program – it provides a lot of information & good advice.

    Anecdotally, I’ve been following the One Metre Rule for several years, in which time I’ve twice narrowly missed car doors that would have hit me if I’d been clinging to the right.

  9. The solution is to cycle far enough into the lane that you won’t be hit by a door if it opens. It really is that simple.

    On some city streets, this just isn’t possible. You will make cars so angry they start passing you by dashing up the incoming traffic lane.

    That said, it makes sense to keep 1 metre whenever possible.

  10. You mentioned juries above — the recent Walrus has an article about a bike accident that ends in a jury’s acquittal of a driver who killed a cyclist and several others. Makes me wonder what proportion of car-owners and drivers make up such juries — whether we can start make comparisons to all-white juries acquitting white criminals in the American South.

  11. Interventions for increasing pedestrian and cyclist visibility for the prevention of death and injuries

    We found no trials assessing the effect of visibility aids on pedestrian and cyclist-motor vehicle collisions and injuries. We identified 39 trials assessing the effect of visibility aids on drivers’ responses. Fluorescent materials in yellow, red and orange colours improve detection and recognition in the daytime. For night-time visibility, lamps, flashing lights and retroreflective materials in red and yellow colours increase detection and recognition. Retroreflective materials arranged in a ‘biomotion’ configuration also enhance recognition. Substantial heterogeneity between and within the trials limited the possibility for meta-analysis. Summary statistics and descriptive summaries of the outcomes were presented for individual trials when appropriate.

  12. Even the most socially abhorrent driving crimes, like a fatal crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver, often evoke curiously lenient legal responses. Consider the nonautomotive case of Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself with an unregistered, concealed gun. Stupid? Yes. Illegal. Yes. End result? A painful leg injury (to himself)—and two years in jail. Now compare that with fellow NFL player Leonard Little, who in 1998 ran a red light and smashed into a car whose driver died the next day from her injuries. Little was found to have a BAC of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit in the state of Missouri. Stupid? Yes. Illegal? Yes. End result? Another person lost her life. Little’s sentence, compared with Burress’, was minor: 90 days. He missed only six football games and was able to keep his license (even racking up another DUI six years later).

    One often hears, in cases like this, comments along the lines of “his guilty conscience will be punishment enough.” But ex post facto regret is worthless from the perspective of public health, which seeks preventative measures to stop people from dying. Which raises the second benefit of traffic tickets: They help keep people—drivers and those outside the car—alive. Several studies have found a “negative correlation” between someone receiving a traffic violation and their subsequent involvement in a fatal traffic crash.

  13. What I think he meant, if he could articulate it — which clearly he couldn’t — was that bicyclists aren’t legitimate road users, and we shouldn’t be getting in the way of cars, or, for that matter, in the way of people exiting cars. No one worries about dooring pedestrians: for one thing, pedestrians don’t have the requisite velocity, and for another thing they’re not meant to be in the road in the first place. And bicyclists, in this guy’s mind, belong in the same category as pedestrians, not the same category as cars. (If there were enough room on the right for a car to pass by, you can be sure he’d look first before opening that door.)

    You see that mindset all the time, with cars — especially when it comes to blinking. They’ll indicate for the benefit of other cars, but never for the benefit of bicyclists: if you’re switching into a new car lane, then you’ll blink, but if you’re going to turn across a bike lane, you won’t. All too often, they’ll commandeer bike lanes for themselves, turning them into de facto left-turn lanes. If it’s on the road, it’s for cars. And, of course, if they’re not using the bike lane to drive in, they’re using it to park in.”

  14. Cyclists being struck by someone opening a car door, also referred to as ‘dooring’ is, according to The League of the American Bicyclists, the most common type of bicyclist-vehicle collision, especially in bigger cities.

    In the Netherlands, they have practiced a very clever way of avoiding these types of collisions. It’s called the ‘Dutch reach.’

    The technique consists of opening the car door by reaching across the body with the hand that’s more distant. Basically, don’t open the door with the hand you probably normally open with — use the other one. Might not sound like much of difference, but this forces you to look over your shoulder whilst you open the door making you more aware if there is a cyclist coming the other way.

    In the Netherlands it’s actually compulsory that drivers taking their license exam learn to use the Dutch reach.

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