Want safer cycling? Don’t dismiss dooring

Care and consideration make the road safer for everyone. Enforcing the law helps too. Fernando de Sousa

Every year, more Australians - particularly in cities - are riding to work. More cyclists means fewer cars on the road, less congestion, less pollution and fewer health problems. But every year more people are injured riding bikes, many of them following crashes with opened car doors. Are we doing enough to keep cyclists safe?

Officially known as “cyclist-vehicle door opening crashes” (but usually called “dooring” or being “doored”) these crashes happen when the door of a vehicle that is parallel parked on the side of the road is opened into the path of an approaching cyclist. The cyclist collides with the door, falls off their bike, and is sometimes then in danger of colliding with moving traffic. In Victoria, one person has died in a dooring incident.

Who’s getting hit by doors, and how much does it hurt?

Between 2000 and 2010, both police and hospitals reported an increase in dooring crashes in Victoria. The police reported 1,088 cyclist-door crashes, with an increase in these crashes of 125% from 2000 to 2010.

Of these crashes, 82.8% were during the week, 81.1% during daylight hours, and many in peak travel times (8-10am 18.7%; 5-7pm 22.2%).

Hospitals reported 401 cyclists presenting to hospital after a crash with a car door. Of these, 65.8% were males, and 70% were aged 20-39.

The body region most commonly injured was the shoulder (16%). Seven cyclists (1.7%) sustained an intracranial injury. Most cyclists were treated and discharged (83.8%), with 16.2% admitted to hospital.

In Victoria, this crash type affects adults almost exclusively: police reported 99.1% of cyclists involved were aged 16 years of older. All hospital presentations were cyclists aged 15 years and older.

This is also a mainly metropolitan crash type. The majority of police-reported cyclist-car door crashes occurred in the Melbourne CBD (22%) or metropolitan Melbourne area (73%).

Cyclist crashes with unexpectedly opened vehicles doors can be fatal. In March 2010, James Cross, a 22 year old arts-law student at Monash University, was killed as the result of a car door crash. James was riding along Glenferrie Road in Hawthorn when a driver unexpectedly opened her vehicle door in front of him. James hit the door and was thrown from his bike and hit by a truck in an adjacent lane.

Will fixing parking help?

The two main contributing factors in cyclist-car door crashes are the environment: road design, and the way road users (particularly drivers) behave.

Road design is a significant factor in cyclist-car door crashes. On many roads with a bike lane, when a driver suddenly opens their door there isn’t enough space for a cyclist to safely swerve without moving into the adjacent vehicle lane.

There are engineering solutions that could reduce or eliminate these crashes: wider bike lanes, angle parking or reconfigured bike lane/parking bays that position the bike lane away from parallel parked vehicles.

But redesigning roads can create new issues. For example, in Albert Street, East Melbourne, the bike lane was moved from the drivers' side of parked cars to the passenger side. This has eliminated cyclist-driver side door conflict. But it has increased cyclist-pedestrian interactions, as all vehicle occupants now have to cross the bike path to reach the footpath.

There is no single engineering solution for all sites. To increase cyclist safety while still making it easy for cars to drive and park, we need a comprehensive review of current parking options. Most importantly, any changes to parking must be accompanied by appropriate education for drivers and cyclists.

How to improve the situation: drivers

Driver behaviour is a significant factor in cyclist-opened vehicle door crashes. The most obvious and direct solution is for drivers to always check for cyclists before opening any vehicle door. To change the habits of many drivers will require extensive investment in behaviour change and driver education campaigns.

One way to stop such habits from forming is to train new drivers to interact safely with cyclists. We could take some lessons on driver training from countries with high cycling participation rates, such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

When drivers are parallel parked they should stop and check for cyclists, then wait for a gap in cyclist traffic before opening any doors.

When you’re getting into or out of the car, you should:

  • open the door as little as necessary, and shut it as quickly as possible
  • open the door with your left hand; this makes you twist in your seat and head check for cyclists before opening the door
  • always walk around your vehicle by walking towards the traffic: this will increase the likelihood that you will see a cyclist
  • tell your passengers to get out on the curbside
  • pack your belongings in the left side of the car so you don’t have to open the driver side rear door to get to them.

If you’re driving your car past parked cars and cyclists, you can help too. If you give cyclists at least a metre clearance, they will have some space if they need to swerve to avoid an unexpectedly opened vehicle door. “Leaving a metre” makes sure cyclists have a safe space around them whether there is a bike lane or not.

Avoiding tinting vehicle windows also helps cyclists to observe driver/passenger behaviour and gives them time to respond sooner.

Improved vehicle technology could also help. To date, the majority of vehicle technology and safety features have focused on vehicle occupant functions and protection. More could be done to protect people outside the vehicle. Manufacturers are now developing sensors to detect other vehicles in the vicinity. This could be extended to alert drivers of cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Vehicle technology that improves the safety of all road users is immeasurably more important than technology that allows a vehicle to self-park.

How to improve the situation: cyclists

Of course there are things cyclists can do to protect themselves too:

  • Always ride within your bike handling skills – make sure you always have control of the bike.
  • Travel at a speed that allows safe braking or direction change.
  • Be vigilant about drivers/passengers opening car doors; check for heads through rear and side windows and side mirrors.
  • Increase your visibility by using front lights, especially at twilight and on overcast or rainy days.

Finally, the role of enforcement is essential in creating a safe space for cyclists. The current rule in Victoria is that “car drivers and passengers must not cause a hazard by opening their car door”. The current maximum penalty for this offence is three penalty units. The current infringement able to be issued on the spot by police is one penalty unit. Currently one penalty unit is valued at $122.14 (until 30 June 2012). This is one of the lowest penalties in Australia. In NSW and Queensland, the maximum penalty is 20 penalty units and in South Australia, drivers incur 3 demerit points.

In addition to the low penalty, there also seems to be a reluctance to enforce penalties for this offence. When James Cross was killed, the officer who attended the crash scene told the state coroner that “her ‘bosses’ at her station informed her that a charge against [the driver] would not be authorised”.

If the existing laws regarding driver behaviour are not currently effective or not actively enforced, it is essential that these laws are reviewed to ensure that cyclists are judicially protected.