The Brutal Truth

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“Scene of a cyclist fatality that resulted from a dooring incident in a door-zone bike lane in Cambridge, MA”. Credit: humantransport.org

As 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 bike was an inspiring moment, although I found it important to recall my own experience to provide the Los Angeles cycling community with safety tips and the lessons I have learned in this experience. My last post focused on my own collision and recovery; below, I will discuss the experiences of others, dooring collision studies, municipal safety programs and my own ideas about cycling infrastructure and safety in hopes that cyclists will learn from the mistakes I and the perpetrator made- so they hopefully wont have such an experience themselves.

After my dooring accident in January, I heard many anecdotes from other cyclists about their experience being doored and how those accidents affect themselves or loved ones. One friend had a door opened in front of him and ended up flying over the door, yet escaped with a few minor scrapes. Another had a door opened right into his kneecap and felt excruciating pain, but was able to walk it off and get back on the bike about 20 minutes later. A woman I was speaking to about my experience told me that her mother had also been doored and required a year of physical therapy for her injured hand. I received a message from a friend who knew someone who was also doored recently: the victim suffered a dislocated shoulder, was prescribed two different pain medsications and missed a week of school. Throughout this unfortunate litany of injuries and accidents, a recurring theme was a lack of awareness from the individual opening the car door into the path of an oncoming cyclist. Because of this, I believe it essential that drivers be educated on the importance of observing their surroundings. It is also incumbent on cyclists to be aware of the door zone in order to reduce the rates of this entirely preventable accident.

In fact, in 2007 New York City started the “Look” campaign to address this issue following a 2006 report that showed “nearly all fatal crashes were the result of poor driving or bicycle riding behavior, particularly driver inattention and disregarding traffic signals and signs.” By using public education and outreach in campaigns, organizations and municipal agencies can teach individuals exiting their car to look for passing cyclists. In Northern Europe, individuals are taught to open their car door with the hand that is opposite the door (say, one’s right hand on the driver’s side, or one’s left hand on the passenger side), which would force an individual to look behind them for a cyclist before opening the car door. Cyclists should also use defensive riding techniques such as not being too close to vehicles that appear to be parked as there may always be somebody about to open their door!

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New York City’s successful bicycle and pedestrian safety campaign. Credit: New York City Department of Transportation

Tragically, there have been several documented cases across the world in which a doored cyclist lost their life, highlighting just how severe these accidents can be. A majority of the fatal dooring incidents involve the cyclist being struck by passing vehicles after being forced into the traffic lane to avoid being hit by the door. Most of these fatalities involve large vehicles like trucks or buses.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find data on the total amount of dooring incidents that occur in Los Angeles in a given year. There is no “dooring” category for reporting purposes in the collision databases the state maintains. Because of this, it is a hidden, unrecognized hazard that is difficult for advocacy groups and municipal entities to quantify. Nevertheless, there have been some attempts to understand the rates of dooring accidents, such as a Chicago study that found dooring was the primary collision factor in 19.7% of bicycle crashes; in Boston, door zone collisions account for around 5% of collisions; in Santa Barbara, dooring accounts for around 16% of collisions. The League of American Bicyclists Guide to Safe Cycling suggests that the third most common motorist-caused bicycle collision is opening a door into the path of a cyclist, while cutting off a cyclist while turning, and running stop signs are the top two, respectively.

These experiences suggest the need for added bicycle infrastructure, such as segregated cycle tracks, to protect cyclists and identify a predictable space for them on the road. Outreach is also important, not only to highlight the risks cyclists face, but also illuminate the many benefits that can be realized when one uses a bicycle as their main mode of transportation. These include an active and healthy lifestyle as well as heightened spiritual, mental and emotional health that many cyclists enjoy. Los Angeles has some of the worst congestion and air pollution in the country; cycling serves to mitigate some of their negative effects as well.

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A young girl riding in this separated “cycle track” bike lane suggests the perceived safety of such a facility. Credit: Livin in the Bike Lane

Cyclists share a great deal of responsibility for traffic safety. Cycling has some inherent risks, so bicyclists must ride legally and alert at all times. Indeed, this collision could have been avoided if both myself and the woman who opened her door had been paying better attention and if we had not been in such a rush. I would suggest you take a look at the LADOT Bicycle Program’s recommendations on following California bicycle laws; with respect to the door zone, this means cycling at least three feet from parked cars. It is also advised that cyclists not pass cars on the right side (oops).

Despite the pain that I have endured throughout this experience, I am only more inspired to pursue bicycle safety and driver awareness in my work here at the LADOT Bicycle Program. Many individuals have a difficult time making that transition back to the bike after such fearful collisions- and so I dedicate my work to them. Although my ordeal wasn’t that severe, I am interested in exploring solutions to reduce the risks associated with cycling. Hopefully, this story and more like it will contribute to the discussion of implementing protected bicycle lanes, or cycle tracks, in the city of Los Angeles, which separate cyclists from the roadway and reduce the probability that a dooring can occur. Please feel free to share any of your own dooring experiences (or other collisions) in the comments below.

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