Learning Bike Safety the Hard Way

For cyclists who have been involved in a collision with an automobile, the thought of getting back on a bike can be both daunting and liberating. Whether the collision occurred because the driver was impatient or unaware, because the bicyclist made a dangerous or risky maneuver, or because there was insufficient infrastructure, accidents force riders like me to re-evaluate the connection between our bodies and our bicycles.

The relationship between person and bicycle is manifested by the physical work of the body on the bicycle, and it takes on an entirely new meaning after you are injured. Riding my bike today for the first time since my collision three weeks ago, I felt this connection once again, albeit with a heightened understanding of the risks associated with riding.

My Experience

On the morning of Wednesday, January 8th, I was “doored” while bicycling to work. Getting doored entails the occupant of a vehicle opening their car door while a cyclist is approaching in the “door zone” (the 3.5-5 foot zone which an opened door typically spans into or obstructs the roadway), causing a collision. The technical language that applies in the California Vehicle Code is:

22517.  No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open upon the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.

Admittedly, this was not a typical incident because I was attempting to pass a vehicle on the right side.  (Oops.)  We’ll get to what’s wrong with that in the next post…

I was riding in the right-most travel lane on Bundy Dr. We were stopped at a red light and there was a Santa Monica Big Blue Bus loading passengers at a designated bus stop.  I was late to work, and rushing to catch this particular bus. There was only one car stopped behind this bus, which I decided to pass on the right in order to mount the sidewalk and hurry onto my cross-town ride.

dustinsaccident

Our back-of-the-napkin illustration of how the dooring accident took place

Unfortunately, I had a lot in common with that the people in the car: we were both rushing to catch the Rapid 10 to Downtown Los Angeles! As I passed through the 4’ space between the car and the curb, the passenger door opened into my path; it seems that in our rush, neither of us had taken a moment to be aware of the hazards in our environment. The passenger should have checked to be sure the way was clear, and I should have used more caution. But, I thought that the vehicle was at a far enough distance from the curb for me to pass on the right and I had no idea that she would be exiting the vehicle from the passenger side; I realize now that passing a stopped vehicle on the right is not a safe maneuver.

Her car door opened and hit my left hand just as I was passing, sending me tumbling to the curb. I broke my fall with my left hand and jumped up immediately (with the utmost integrity, of course). Me, pumped with adrenaline, and her, still determined to make the bus (I was actually still determined), ignored the “crisis situation” of our collision. Yet, I did not receive an apology from the woman after I suggested that she look for cyclists next time she opened her car door. She said nothing, but maintained a guilty look that I substituted for a verbal apology.

Walking my bike to the bus, I realized my left hand was bleeding profusely and that I would not make it to work that morning. As the bus left without me, I contemplated what to do and decided to call my girlfriend to take me to the emergency room. The whole situation happened so fast- I remained in a haze of confusion.

At the hospital I received three stitches on my right index finger and four stitches on my chin.  I had lost an entire layer of skin on the tip of the same finger (which was left to heal naturally), and left with a number of bumps and bruises on my legs. My mangled finger remained in a splint.

Over the past month, my finger has healed quite nicely. I finally got my stitches off on January 22 and my finger no longer requires any bandage, but it is kinda mangled looking. I decided then that it was time to get back on my bike.

dustin-pic

Dustin Foster, Happy to be back on the bike.

In my next post, I will elaborate on my lessons learned, as I hope that others will learn from my missteps.

0 replies
  1. Steve Sweat
    Steve Sweat says:

    Bike accidents are never pleasant experiences but, it is important to share these kinds of experiences so that other riders can learn both how to reduce the chances of a similar occurrence and how to get back up and ride again. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. bike2hike
    bike2hike says:

    The biggest thing I have on my bike for prevention is my Airzound Horn, I can’t tell you how many times that has saved me from being doored or getting hit by clueless drivers. The second thing you should really think about videoing your commute because we all know who is usually considered at fault.

    Reply
    • dustinjamesfoster
      dustinjamesfoster says:

      I have been considering purchasing either one or both of these devices. A GoPro would definitely be handy for both safety and bicycle outreach/video editing reasons. Thank you for the advice.

      Reply
  3. Craig
    Craig says:

    Justin,

    Glad to hear that you are mending from your crash.

    I want to congratulate you on the most honest assessment of a bike accident I’ve read (granted, I’m no authority on the subject). The fact that you recognized the accident involved multiple factors and decisions both by the passenger in the car whose door you collided with, and yourself is commendable and feels like it more accurately portrays the incident. On top of that, you also seem to fairly characterize the chain of decisions by all parties as being motivated by a common and everyday occurrence (e.g. a rush to get to work on time).

    I feel fair accounts of incidents such as yours do much more to contribute to the conversation of bike, car co-existence.

    You mention passing vehicles on the right as unsafe. Do you feel that also applies to slow moving auto traffic? Can you expand on this a bit and explain your thoughts given passing slow/stopped autos seems to be a very common use case for cyclists, at least the ones I observe regularly?

    In addition, given the 3 foot passing rule for cars passing bikes (which I admit I am aware of only via news summaries) do you feel a corollary that “bikes should maintain a 3 foot distance when passing cars” should also be enforced?

    Reply
    • dustinjamesfoster
      dustinjamesfoster says:

      Thank you Craig, I really appreciate the positive feedback I’ve received after sharing my experience. I agree with you wholeheartedly; I think it really important that people accept responsibility for their actions. Along those lines, I acknowledged my own faults- although it is clear that the passenger did not exercise caution in opening her door. There is a lot that cyclists can do, and a lot that motorists can do, to make the roads a more inclusive environment for all. One of the motivations for this post (and my subsequent post which will be published in the coming days) was to suggest this and motivate individuals to exhibit behaviors that are safer.

      To address your question on why passing on the right is unsafe, in my case it was clearly an issue of visibility- I was not seen by the passenger as she opened her door. Motorists may not look to see passing cyclists as they make right turns as well, which is another potential hazard when passing on the right. In addition, when passing on the right, there is potentially less room to swerve to avoid colliding with the open door as there is when passing on the left (although this situation brings with it its own, perhaps more dangerous hazards, as will be discussed in my next post).

      When thinking about 3 foot passing rules, I wouldn’t necessarily say it should be enforced, but since my dooring incident, I have been passing parking automobiles with at least 4 or 5 feet of space to avoid the “door zone”. In sharrowed lanes, this means I am basically taking up an entire lane- but I feel this is safer than me potentially getting struck by a car door. In bike lanes, this means I am riding as far left as possible to still ride in the lane.

      Reply
  4. purefixchris
    purefixchris says:

    Did you report it as a hit and run? Hope you got the car’s info so you can get some help with those medical bills! Stay safe, have fun, and keep pedaling!

    Reply
  5. dustinjamesfoster
    dustinjamesfoster says:

    Thank you Steve- this was mainly my motivation for explaining my story. I have really experienced a range of emotions- pain, anger, regret, embarrassment, thankfulness, etc. When it comes down to it, people make mistakes, so it is important that we all stay focused and aware, whether we are a cyclist or motorist. I have heard stories of people being too afraid to get back on the bike after they got in a collision. This is a tragedy and I really think it is important to address the risks, as well as potential safety improvements, to allow people to feel safer and respected on the road way.

    Reply
  6. Whpoa
    Whpoa says:

    While you are considering unsafe bike moves, consider the cyclist who passes a car waiting to turn right on a green light on its right side. This happened to me recently, but fortunately the cyclist turned right up the handicapped ramp onto the sidewalk and proceeded to cycle across in the crosswalk so that I saw him in time to wait while he completed his maneuver. Also how about the cyclist who proceeds along a narrow heavily travelled 2-lane street, veering right and left because he has a cell phone proper between his ear and his shoulder. The street is too narrow to pass giving him the 3 feet required without crossing into oncoming traffic.

    Reply

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  1. […] I explained in my recent post, “Learning Bike Safety the Hard Way”, for a cyclist, getting doored can be emotionally and physically deflating. Getting back on the […]

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