Worcester, Mass.
May 2, 1999

Getting doored: Not always an open and shut case

By Lynne Tolman

  Road cyclists have a healthy fear of cars, but sometimes the danger doesn't lie where we think.
  One of the most common types of bike-car accidents is cyclists getting "doored." You're pedaling along when suddenly someone opens a car door in your path, and BOOM! You don't have time or space to avoid hitting it.
  It happened to Fran Benoit of Leicester about five years ago on Mill Street in Worcester, by the Coes Pond beach. A woman in a parked car "just didn't look and opened her door," he said. "The bike stopped and I kept going. I went right over the top of the door."
  Luckily, Benoit, who was wearing a helmet, suffered only bumps and bruises. And no one ran him over while he was sprawled in the road.
  The front wheel of his bike was trashed. The driver bought him a new wheel.
  "It's a real balancing act" to stay out of the "door zone" and also out of the way of moving traffic, said Benoit, 56, who bikes about 5,000 miles a year, including year-round commuting to Worcester.
  Benoit's experience was fairly typical, according to Andrew M. Fischer, a Boston lawyer who represents bicyclists who have been in accidents. Fischer has never failed to collect a settlement for a doored cyclist. One of the largest was about $30,000 for a rider who went over the handlebars and broke his collarbone.
  Getting doored accounts for up to 8 percent of bike-car accidents, according to the bikers' bible "Effective Cycling" by John Forester. A Metropolitan Area Planning Council study of bike-car accidents in the Boston area (within Route 128) in 1979-80 put the figure at 5.3 percent, said Paul Schimek of Boston, a certified Effective Cycling instructor.
  The problem is that cyclists are afraid a car will strike them from behind, so they ride too close to parked cars, said John S. Allen of Waltham, author of "Street Smarts: Bicycling's Traffic Survival Guide."
  However, that fear is misplaced, Allen said. Straight-line, rear-end collisions account for only about 0.5 percent of bike-car collisions. Car doors are a greater threat.
  The solution is simple: Ride at least 3 feet to the left of parked cars. If that doesn't leave cars room to pass, the drivers will just have to wait, Allen writes in his guide "How to Ride in Boston Traffic -- Or Anywhere."
  Look in each parked car to see if it's empty, advises Dave Glowacz in his book "Urban Bikers' Tricks & Tips." Use your rear-view mirror and glance over your shoulder to keep track of what's behind you. Claim the lane if you must.
  You are more visible and more predictable if you ride in a straight line; don't weave in and out between parked cars. If you need to take the lane, look over your shoulder, signal, and get cooperation from the driver behind you as you move away from the shoulder, Allen advises.
  "You have a perfect legal right to the space you need to be safe," Allen writes. "Most drivers will respect this right. Some may honk their horns; then you know they've seen you."
  "Losing the lurking fear of being struck from behind is the single most liberating moment in a bicyclist's career except for the moment of learning to steer and balance," Allen said.
  Barbara Jacobs of Waltham has been doored twice on her 12-mile bike commute to Boston. "You're forced into it because of traffic," she said. Also, she said, headrests and tinted windows make it hard to tell if a parked car is empty.
  The first time Jacobs was doored, in 1993 on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, her bike was totaled. The second time, last September on Belmont Avenue in Cambridge, she had to get 14 stitches in her cheek. Both times, the motorists' insurance covered her costs without argument.
  Although no one claimed the accidents were the cyclist's fault -- an argument that lawyer Fischer does hear from auto insurance claims adjusters -- Jacobs has changed her riding style. "Now I'll take more of my space," she said.
  If traffic is slow or stopped, a cyclist may find himself threading the needle between cars on his left and parked cars on his right. Getting doored by someone opening a passenger-side door is "not as unusual as you'd think," Fischer said.
  Last fall in Brookfield, cyclist Ken Reed of Charlton tried to pass on the right of a police car that had stopped in the travel lane. A front-seat passenger in the cruiser opened her door, and Reed slammed into it. A piece of the door gashed his neck, slicing his esophagus. He was in the hospital for a few days, and his bike was destroyed. An insurance claim is pending.
  Massachusetts law specifically allows bicyclists to pass on the right of slower or stopped cars, Fischer said, and that has helped him win settlements for doored riders. He doesn't like to trumpet that right, though, because cyclists should exercise it with caution. Although it is sometimes imprudent for cyclists to pass on the right, he said, he doesn't want cyclists to lose the right.
  No matter which side of the car the opened door is on, Fischer said, in about 40 states the law puts the presumption of fault on the motorist. However, Massachusetts has not adopted that provision of the Uniform Vehicle Code. Bike advocates have lobbied unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts Legislature to adopt the car door rule, which simply says: "No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so."
  The rule, which does not specifically mention bikes, is not about bicycling, Fischer said. It's about people in automobiles being responsible for the machinery they're operating.
  "It is nice to have the law on your side if you are doored, but better not to get doored at all," cycling instructor Schimek said. "No matter what the rule is ... cyclists should always ride a door's width away from parked cars."

Lynne Tolman's bicycling column archives
Lynne Tolman's home page