green in a bike lane means danger

The Real Door Zone Tragedy

The April 17 fatal dooring crash of Lenny Trinh in Burbank, CA, has ignited the blogosphere — and the blogosphere is getting it all wrong.

Before you read further, please stop.

Observe a moment of silence for Trinh’s memory, and for the agony of his family and loved ones. I feel a heavy sadness that this post even needs to be written. But we must address the sober task of learning from this tragedy.

Believe it or not, dooring never has to happen.  The real tragedy is that door zone riding is so heavily promoted, even after decades of observing the carnage it causes.  And the blogosphere is not addressing this tragedy.

Trinh was riding in a door zone bike lane. You can see it here:

Site of Lenny Trinh's fatal dooring crash

Most dooring crashes aren’t fatal, but some are.

Cycling Savvy Instructor John Brooking has compiled a list of 36 fatalities, with names, dates and a narrative describing each crash. As happened last month with Lenny Trinh, most fatalities involve the “doored” bicyclist being run over by an overtaking motorist in the adjoining lane.

Why does this happen? The typical scenario is that the bicyclist almost avoids the open door, and her handlebar end catches on the door. The handlebars swing to the right, which dumps the bicyclist onto the pavement to her left. The nearby overtaking motorist can’t stop in time, and runs over the bicyclist.

An overtaking vehicle is not necessary for serious personal injury or death. Instead, the victim hits the ground hard enough to sustain a fatal injury. In at least one case that Brooking recorded, a helmet did not prevent a fatal head injury. This isn’t surprising. If you’ve ever tripped and fallen in the bathtub, you know you can fall fast and hit hard. Add in the bicyclist’s speed, and that’s a faster, harder hit.

Non-fatal door collisions are a dime a dozen.

From brain injury to broken collarbones, the injuries can be tragic. And there are so many of them! I recall an article about a door collision in Portland, Oregon, in which a sympathetic bystander said to the victim: “Is this your first time?”

Door collisions usually aren’t counted and totaled. Here’s why: For a bicyclist’s crash to make it into “the system” for purposes of counting and statistical analysis, it has to involve a serious collision with a moving motor vehicle. The swinging door doesn’t count as “moving.”

Because these collisions aren’t counted, some people prefer to believe they aren’t a frequent problem. To that I respond: “Count the personal injury lawyers whose practices are primarily focused on dooring crashes.”

One exception to “not counted” occurred in Chicago some years ago. The city was required to count door collisions, and it produced a map with a dot for every collision. The map has lots of dots:

Doorings of cyclists in Chicago

Dooring collisions have occurred for decades.

They cost millions. And when society believes cyclists should ride in the door zone, dooring collisions create the perception that bicycling has huge inherent dangers that can’t be avoided.

So we take a deep breath and ask:

What is it with dooring crashes?

Why do we have so many?

Why do we make so little headway in preventing them?

Why do engineers continue to stripe door zone bike lanes, when they know that crashes like Trinh’s are an inevitable consequence of door zone riding?

There’s only one way to avoid dooring crashes.

Here’s my premise: Safety results from safe behaviors. Traffic control devices should direct all road users to behave safely. A door zone bike lane fails this premise.

There is one, and only one, way for a bicyclist to absolutely avoid dooring crashes: Don’t ride in the door zone.  So from my point of view, proponents of door zone bike lanes must dispute the premise that traffic control devices should direct all road users to behave safely.

Why?

Let’s start with the “respect” some people believe bicyclists “deserve” from the rest of society. This “respect” insists that motorists consider bicyclists they haven’t seen, don’t know exist, but may be sneaking up in their door zone. I’ve often heard people say that painting bike lanes green will increase respect and awareness — i.e., that motorists will see the green paint and be aware that a bicyclist might be there.

A bicyclist can prevent almost all traffic crashes by changing her own behavior.

Awareness didn’t work very well for Ayden Seguritan, a Yale-educated physician’s assistant. She was cycling in the door zone on Harvard Street in Cambridge, MA, and got doored. Then the motorist stepped out of the car. . . wearing her bicycle helmet. The motorist had just finished riding a bike herself.

How can you be more aware of bicycling than this motorist? Nope, “awareness” isn’t going to prevent these collisions.

Why do some bicycling advocates continue to beat the “awareness” drum — and actually ask for door-zone bike lanes — instead of going for the silver bullet of staying out of the door zone?

There are numerous reasons.

The biggest is an unwillingness to let go of an assumption: that edge riding is inevitable.

What’s edge riding?  We think of bicyclist behavior as falling into three categories: Pedestrian behavior, edge behavior and driver behavior. A pedestrian-behaving cyclist rides on the sidewalk, and is very susceptible to many crash types. An edge rider, on the right edge of the road, is doing what most people think is safe, but which has its own long list of crash hazards.

Cyclists always have choices.

We all started cycling by being edge riders. And even though edge riding is at the root of most bicycle crashes, many can’t fathom the idea of not riding on the edge of the road.

This belief has many roots. One is that many people really still believe that overtaking motorists shouldn’t be inconvenienced in the slightest. (Changing lanes to pass! How difficult! What a first world problem!) It’s distressing how many bicyclists cling to this notion.

Another root, found among the jock set, is subliminal: edge riding is difficult and stressful. Jocks like to think that what they do is difficult, and that they are brave for doing it, and they are vaguely threatened by the notion of old grey-haired people blissfully riding in the heavy traffic they fear.

A third root is the concept that traffic control devices are promotional tools for bicyclists, not necessarily safety tools. Some bicyclists feel validated when they see a bike lane. It can be horrid — in the door zone, with a gutter seam and sewer grate, a pothole and mountain of broken glass. But by gum, it’s a bike lane, and that says the government loves bicyclists.

Andrew Boone, a Silicon Valley activist, described the love of bad bike lanes this way:

The whole San Francisco Bay Area features a very extensive network of bike lanes of all kinds — the good, bad, and the ugly. Door Zone Bike Lanes are probably the most common type and all the big local bicycle coalitions support them as ‘better than nothing.’ New ones are still being installed and very few are ever removed.

I have tried hard without success to convince the San Jose Department of Transportation to stop installing them but everyone in the department agrees they are ‘better than nothing’ so they keep installing them. This is pretty much true everywhere in the Bay Area — door zone bike lanes are viewed as an improvement even by most bicyclists and somehow most city staff members remain ignorant on the hazards of dooring.

Some engineers simply don’t understand the dangers, or think the dangers can be fixed with rabbit’s-foot countermeasures. That doesn’t work.  Last month, the city of Key West, FL painted some door zone bike lanes green.  A local cyclist sardonically announced that green was the new “hazard alert” color.

But this highlights another problem.  You can’t make an unsafe behavior safe with paint.  And it doesn’t work to change the color of the paint.

The city of Key West would do well to remember what happened when Portland, Oregon tried to make an unsafe bike lane safe.  On May 16, 2012, shortly after the city put green paint in the bike lane on SW Madison Avenue, Kathryn Rickson was killed in that bike lane.  Rickson’s death was the result of a bad bike lane design.

green in a bike lane means danger

This door zone bike lane in Key West just got green paint

The CyclingSavvy approach doesn’t tell the cyclist to look for validation or personal safety in a politically motivated, poorly designed bike lane. Instead we tell you that your own behavior is what validates you and maximizes your safety.

A bicyclist can prevent almost all traffic crashes by changing her own behavior.

That very thought is alien to many. To some, it’s downright offensive.

You heard me right. Some people get offended when you try to tell bicyclists how to ride safer.

A surprising number of people prefer to view bicycle crashes as either (a) completely random, or (b) the fault of someone else. These beliefs fuel the society-wide opinion that bicycling has huge risks that can’t be managed. They’ve contributed to an overall decline nationwide in cycling.

Shouldn’t there be a law?

Well, there usually is. State laws typically find a motorist at fault for opening a car door and causing a crash. But the abysmal compliance with that law should convince you to neither rely on it nor tell other cyclists to rely on it.

Well, doesn’t the law at least give you the right of recovery after a crash? Big maybe. In one case, Washington DC Superior Court Judge Robert Skuker acknowledged that there was a law against opening one’s door in traffic, but also noted that the bicyclist had the right to use the right travel lane. The judge wrote:

[A] person exiting an automobile would not reasonably expect that a cyclist would be traveling at a rapid speed within a foot of her car. Accordingly, one could not conclude that a reasonable person should believe that cracking the car’s door no more than six inches would cause a cyclist to veer into a lane of moving traffic.

The judge ruled against the bicyclist (Wing v. Schmidt, September 1980).

Now it’s time to return to Mr. Trinh’s tragic case and the blogosphere. The countermeasure that bloggers have most often suggested is something called the Dutch Reach. This is a campaign to get motorists to reach across the steering wheel with their right hand to open the car door. The belief is that this will naturally cause motorists to look out for overtaking door zone bicyclists.

But the belief is bogus.  There are numerous problems with this so-called solution that I’ll expand on another time. In the words of one knowledgable Southern California activist, Nevram Norman, “I’ve tried the ‘Dutch reach.’ It doesn’t force me to look backwards, it just crosses my arms.”

I eagerly await the day when it becomes common knowledge that bicyclists are better served by simply riding outside of the door zone.

A few months ago I led a CyclingSavvy group on a tour of Philadelphia. We were controlling the right travel lane on Spring Garden Street, staying outside of the door zone bike lane. An overtaking motorist — who was not inconvenienced, even for a second, in changing lanes to pass — told us to get in the bike lane. And just like that, a Toyota Prius door flung open in the bike lane.

We weren’t in danger. We didn’t care. We were riding safely.

Friends don’t let friends ride in — or promote —  door zone bike lanes.

>>>>>>>> This article has been updated with a correction.  An earlier version said the city of Key West was using green paint to highlight the known hazard of a door zone bike lane.  That is incorrect.  The city does not believe that design is a hazard. <<<<<<<<<<<

21 replies
  1. John Brooking
    John Brooking says:

    Great article, John! Thank you!!

    About my spreadsheet of dooring fatalities: It’s not an attempt to be complete or official. After the initial compilation, I’ve mainly just added ones I happen to hear about over the years. If anyone knows of any I’m missing, please contact me and I will add them.

    Reply
  2. Gary Cziko
    Gary Cziko says:

    Thanks for this article on an important cycling topic.

    My recollection is that several years ago the entire state of Illinois started requiring all municipalities to start recording door-zone bike crashes and that should be continuing today.

    So I wonder if more current data is available from Chicago and other cities in Illinois.

    Reply
  3. Linda Webb
    Linda Webb says:

    With over 50 years of cycling experience, I have seen a change in dooring. In the past, a car would pass you, park, and you expected the door to quickly open. Even if you were in the door zone, you had some warning. Now a car can be parked, long before it came into the cyclist’s view, with driver engaged with phone. Then BINGO, out flies the door.

    Reply
    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      A few summers ago, I was passing a parked car when the driver, who had been apparently just sitting there, lazily extended his arm out the window with a lit cigarette at the end of it. I’m glad I was outside the door zone!

      Then last summer, a wrong-way cyclist came out from behind the front of a parked car as I was passing it. The car was hiding both of us from the other. Fortunately, I was far enough into the lane to not him him head on, but I did swear at him as we passed.

      Reply
    • Schubert John
      Schubert John says:

      Great observation, Linda! Thank you!
      That describes my own behavior. Quite often, I have a message to answer or a mapping program to close before I open the door.

      Reply
    • Serge Issakov
      Serge Issakov says:

      That reminds me, Linda, on the way to your house the other day in Hillcrest while looking at something on the left side of the street I suddenly heard a creaking sound. I turned towards the sound coming from my right and sure enough, a door opening. Of course I didn’t even have to flinch because I was well out of the door zone, by habit.

      By, yeah, I too have noticed people hanging in their cars much more than they did before. But I’ve noticed this more in parking lots when driving and looking for a spot. Back in the day when you saw someone getting in their car, you knew you were good; that spot is about to be yours! Nowadays they might sit for God knows how long before leaving… But of course this applies to people parking at the curb too, like you said. After parking, they check Facebook for a few minutes before suddenly swinging the door open. I do wonder if this is increasing the incidence of doorings.

      Reply
  4. Tim Potter
    Tim Potter says:

    Brilliantly done article on the “door prize no one wants” (borrowed from a big anti-dooring campaign done in Toronto 10 yrs. or so ago). John, I’m going to add the fatal crashes relt’d to dooring that you’ve documented to the Ride of Silence Memorial database after this year’s Ride of Silence, which is next Wed., May 16th by the way. Please join your local event and ride to remember our fallen brothers and sisters of the wheel.

    Note to those of you who have a problem with the RoS happening during Natl. Bike Month (basically MOST of the large bike advocacy groups): many events end with an after-party to celebrate and encourage those working to strengthen the safety of bicyclists’ on our roads, so they don’t all end up being depressing events.

    Reply
  5. John Forester
    John Forester says:

    While John S. has written much that is interesting, he has ignored, perhaps deliberately, the most important factor in the cycling issue. That is, American society’s program for cycling is set up to keep cyclists out of the way of same-direction motor traffic. One may argue about the motive, but the fact exists. It exists through the belief that the greatest danger to cyclists, by far, is same-direction motor traffic. As long as the program is driven by these superstitions, responsible engineers will squeeze in DZBLs because they accept the small danger of dooring compared to the much, much greater danger of getting in the way of same-direction motor traffic. That is the
    action of the cyclist-inferiority phobia. It is a phobia because it is contrary to fact and controls political action; only 5% of car-bike collisions are caused by same-direction motor traffic, while 95% are caused by crossing and turning movements by either or both parties.
    Lawful, competent cyclists must reject the phobia and replace the government’s program for bicycle transportation by generating support for rules of the road cycling and support also for fighting off government’s efforts to prohibit rules of the road cycling.

    Reply
    • Serge Issakov
      Serge Issakov says:

      John F,

      American society’s program for cyclists reflects the widespread belief that from-behind is the greatest threat to cyclist safety.

      Focusing on the hazards of dooring is a gateway to change that thinking among the masses, including most other cyclists, who are totally unaware of the safety and traffic-comfort benefits of using the full lane. Jumping immediately and directly into the underlying causes can be off-putting and ineffective. I think John S’s approach is probably quite effective. We’ll see.

      One step at a time…

      Serge

      Reply
  6. Jean-François Pierre
    Jean-François Pierre says:

    Hello,
    Do you have counter-direction lanes in the US ? You could find these lanes in France in low speed zones that are called “meeting zones”. These bicycle lanes are in the dooring zone of the cars in front of you. If you are lucky, bikes are painted in white on the ground and if you are luckier, there are white signs to let to know to the car drivers they can’t use the way. There are more and more lanes like this in Paris. What do you think about this ?
    That’s the one I use every evening : https://www.google.fr/maps/place/Rue+du+Cherche-Midi,+Paris/@48.8481496,2.3239021,3a,75y,37.15h,88.43t/data=!3m8!1e1!3m6!1sk1idxDdc2S2ku2d4o87y_w!2e0!3e11!6s%2F%2Fgeo0.ggpht.com%2Fmaps%2Fphotothumb%2Ffd%2Fv1%3Fbpb%3DChEKD21hcHNfc3YudGFjdGlsZRIgChIJczM38dJx5kcR7342VBVGEPcqCg0AAAAAFQAAAAAaBQhkEMsB%26gl%3DFR!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x47e671d2f1373373:0xf710461554367eef!8m2!3d48.8480932!4d2.3237847

    Reply
    • Schubert John
      Schubert John says:

      Hello Jean-François,
      What do I think about the street view you shared? I’m always worried when the road design creates conflicts. But I haven’t been to Paris in 33 years, and I’d want to see more and know more before commenting further.
      The video that Frank posted is a nightmare because of its complexity. Who is supposed to look where and do what? The nature of traffic is that you have to look and make decisions quickly. Every time you make a decision more complex, or add a place to look, you introduce another possible failure mode. I bet my friend John S. Allen got a splitting headache making that video!

      Reply
  7. John S. Allen
    John S. Allen says:

    Frank is incorrect. Contraflow bicycle facilities do exist in the USA, and other countries as well. See my article here: http://bikexprt.com/bikepol/facil/lanes/contraflow.htm . The facilities can be well-designed and safe, or hazardous. I have never before seen one as absurd as what Jean-François has shown us, though. On a narrow, small street like this, German practice, as described in a paper linked form my article, is for bicyclists to ride in the middle of the street, and for cyclists and oncoming motorists to negotiate when they meet. This french ezample shows an arrow in the street where bicyclists couldn’t ride without their handlebars striking parked vehicles.. Thank you Jean-François!

    Reply
    • Frank
      Frank says:

      John,
      Did you see the Google Streetview in Jean-François‘s post? I was referring to the configuration shown in that.

      Reply
  8. bentupcycles
    bentupcycles says:

    The presence of a bike lane creates a mindset in drivers that the cyclist MUST use it. The resulting honks and comments towards riders outside of the DZBL can be scary, unsafe, confrontational and distracting.

    Reply
  9. Fred Oswald
    Fred Oswald says:

    I suggest an update on your update:
    This article has been updated with a correction. An earlier version said the city of Key West was using green paint to highlight the known hazard of a door zone bike lane. That is incorrect. The city does not ACKNOWLEDGE that design is a hazard

    Reply

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  1. […] validated my core sense that I did have a right to travel safely on roadways. I learned about the door zone and reasons to ride clear of traffic lane debris, which is typically pushed to the edge of the […]

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