Editor's Note: RoadBikeReview contributor Megan Hottman is a recognized legal expert on cycling laws and advocate in the cycling community. She provides bike law education clinics and classes to cyclists, local bike clubs, and to law enforcement personnel in the state of Colorado. This post originally appeared on www.hottmanlawoffice.com.
Cyclists riding beside parked motor vehicles, whether in bike lanes or on roadways, are at serious risk of being "doored." Dooring collisions happen when a driver or passenger opens a car door directly into a bicyclist's line of travel.
As most states legally require a cyclist to ride as far to the right as practicable or as judged safe by the bicyclist, this often puts them directly in harm's way because they are riding in the door zone - the space taken up by the open door of a vehicle.
The bicyclist has no time to react and collides with the open car door. Sometimes, a cyclist may swerve into traffic to avoid running into a car door, and in the worst case scenario, ends up being hit by an oncoming vehicle.
Dooring often occurs in urban, downtown areas where cars are parallel parked and where high levels of traffic and narrow lanes exist. Passengers getting out of taxi cabs, cars, or ride-shares often open their doors without looking, which requires a bicyclist to be hyper-alert when riding in the door zone.
However, the law in every state instructs that a driver shall exercise caution when opening their door to exit their vehicle and shall check for overtaking traffic. Colorado state law C.R.S. § 42-4-1207 - Opening and closing vehicle doors - states that, "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 and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic; nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers. Any person who violates any provision of this section commits a class B traffic infraction."
Forty states have dooring laws. The 10 states that do not are Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
While bike lanes are meant to make bicycling safer and to protect bicyclists from being involved in a motor vehicle collision, they do increase the chance of bicyclists being involved in a dooring crash.
Often, cars are illegally parked in bike lanes, forcing bicyclists to navigate around the car or pay special attention to cars entering/leaving the lane. In some cases, the lane on the far right has been designated as both a bike lane as well as a parking lane.
Recently, we represented a client who lost a finger due to a dooring crash. Our client was riding in the bike lane in Boulder. The bike lane was positioned between car traffic lanes to her left and parked cars along the curb to her right. She was smartly scanning the backs of car windows and checking side mirrors to look for any drivers in vehicles who might be exiting their vehicle. As she approached a limo, she noted the windows were tinted. She also saw what appeared to be the driver of the limo leaning against the passenger side of the limo. She dismissed the limo as a threat until suddenly without warning the driver threw his door open to exit the vehicle. Our client attempted to swerve to avoid the car door (knowing that she had overtaking vehicle traffic to her left) and as she did so, the ring on her right hand finger caught on the door handle of the limo.
As her treatment evolved, she underwent numerous surgeries to try and lessen the nerve pain she was experiencing in her hand. After all possible remedies were attempted, she had no choice but to have her middle finger amputated to stop the incessant and overwhelming pain in her hand.
Of course, the insurance company for the driver attempted to paint this event as the cyclist's fault - while acknowledging she was appropriately in the bike lane, and she was riding uphill at a slow pace, doing everything correctly, legally, and prudently, they still tried to pin blame on her for somehow failing to avoid the opening door or failing to steer around it. Eventually, we obtained a very large settlement on her behalf, but it was only after lengthy litigation, at mediation which was a few months before trial. Sadly, our client is now left permanently impaired by the loss of her finger, which impacted her ability to ride and race her bike, to swim (which was her lifelong sport and passion) and to compete in triathlon, which she loved.
We have heard other stories of drivers opening their door as a cyclist was riding by, causing the cyclist to crash into the inside of the driver door. One such story involved the cyclist being impaled by part of the handlebars because of the sudden and complete stop caused by impacting the non-moving/open car door.
These types of collisions can be very serious and possibly deadly. The real problem is that driver-side car doors are often right into or next to the very bike lane built to protect cyclists.
Ed Beighe of azbikelaw.org (a site dedicated to cycling, traffic safety, traffic justice and legal topics) reports that a bike lane in Durham, New Hampshire, was actually removed after the death of a cyclist due to a dooring collision. You can read more about that tragic story here.
Cyclists should note that in most states, there is no legal requirement that they must ride in the bike lane simply because a bike lane is present. It is recommended, but not mandatory. This means that if the cyclist judges it unsafe to ride in the bike lane next to parked cars, the cyclist can move left out of the bike lane and take the traffic lane.
What should drivers and passengers do?
- Look in the rearview and side mirrors before opening the car door slowly and with caution
- Open the vehicle door with the arm furthest from the door. This allows the body to turn and check for bicyclists over the shoulder before exiting the car. This is referred to as the "Dutch Reach"
- Open the door a little and look back up the road for bikes and other vehicles
Illustration courtesy of Bikeyface