Blog post by Amanda Christine, Safe Routes Advocate with Denver CALC
One pleasant afternoon back in June 2018, I was biking on the streets of downtown Denver when a car door abruptly opened into me.
My pleasant ride had suddenly taken a life-threatening turn. Through the shock, I scrambled to assess my situation. (Said situation, by the way, is called getting “doored” and it is an unfortunate risk in city biking, though it doesn’t have to be.)
I looked around me from my newfound position on the pavement. My elbows and knees were scraped and bleeding and my bike was on top of me, instead of me on top of it. I registered (with increasing urgency), that the dark, round shapes slowly rolling past my head were car tires. Adrenaline suddenly flooded my system and I popped up like a jack-in-the-box.
Now, adrenaline is a hormone secreted most often in situations of stress in order to prepare the body for vigorous and/or sudden action. It’s the hormone behind the “fight or flight” response, and as I whirled around upon the driver responsible for dooring me, I can tell you that I wasn’t feeling the urge for flight.
Thankfully, there was still some semblance of rationality that came forward in that moment (the painfully distraught expression on the driver’s face probably helped). I funneled my excess adrenaline into a plea of sorts. I found that, almost by their own accord, my shaking arms and hands clasped themselves into a prayer-like position, as my voice, cracking with emotion, hoarsely yelled, “Please… do NOT open your car door into bicyclists!”
Looking back, it was kind of an unexpected thing to say at that time, and it certainly wasn’t any of the expletives that were also running through my mind. However, it was pretty telling of my work as a bicycle advocate, and in fact, I was on my way to teach a class of kids how to ride bikes when I was doored.
As for the man who doored me, he also seemed to be experiencing a rush of adrenaline and was having trouble speaking at first, though judging from the look on his face, his experience of adrenaline seemed to want to provoke him towards flight, not fight. Thankfully, he stayed. The man softly and profusely mumbled apologies, words tripping over one another as I gathered my bike and moved onto the sidewalk. His gush of sorries expressed his absolute remorse about the situation and that he hadn’t done such an act on purpose.
His apologies also yielded another bit of quite interesting information: that although he had done a check in his rearview mirror, he hadn’t seen me.
In my own adrenaline-fueled daze, this confused me at first. How could that be? I was there! More than that, in fact, is that I was in a bike lane. Then the puzzle pieces started coming together and it hit me (not like the door though).
This was downtown Denver at rush hour, and cars were parked in lines on either side of the street, as well as fully populating the two lanes of one-way traffic. There was a bike lane, which I mentioned I was in, but about 15 to 20 feet behind this driver’s car, there was another car, parked right in the middle of it.
(Cue sigh.) Anyone who has ever biked in the city has most likely seen this. It is an illegal parking position, though not yet uncommon to see.
While I was gaining clarity, the driver yet again insisted that he had checked his rearview mirror. And this is where the timing of how this whole scene played out gets really interesting, because it literally came down to seconds.
Just as the man looked into his rearview mirror to see if the lane was clear, I was forced out of the bike lane because of the car parked there. I merged with the oncoming downtown traffic (a tight squeeze), avoided the illegally parked car, and re-entered the bike lane all in the space of a few seconds, and just in the amount of time that the driver checked his mirror. Thus, upon reentry into the bike lane, I was hit with the opening of a car door. I felt like a sore detective.
Many would-be bikers cite getting doored as among their top fears in avoiding city biking. And although, upon review, the answer to why I wasn’t seen may seem obvious, for a driver who’s not used to looking for things like a car parked in a bike lane (as a bicyclist would be), it could be easily missed.
So what can we do about this?
I didn’t have the answer at that moment, but the driver and I exchanged numbers in case any medical issues arose (thankfully none did). But when the answer did arrive, I was able to share it with him (and he has since informed me that he shares it with everyone he knows). It’s called the Dutch Reach.
An incredibly effective method born in the Netherlands, the Dutch Reach is the simple act of opening your car door with your right hand (if you’re driving on the right side of the road) and allowing your body posture and your eyes to accommodate this. By doing this, you will naturally find yourself in a position where you are turning to look behind you as you open your car door, instead of looking in the rearview mirror and then opening your door while facing forward, leaving a few seconds in between the two acts. (Use your left hand if you’re in a place where it is practice to drive on the left side of the road or if you are a passenger, or whichever hand which is closer to the middle of the car).
Dutch children are actually taught this in school and it’s a required skill to pass on their driver's license test. And Massachusetts and Illinois also now include it in their official driver’s manuals.
That’s because it saves lives. Furthermore, it’s easy and free. You can start doing it today. (Please, start doing it today.)
This is a habit we all can implement that will keep each other safer. So please, be like the driver at the end of this story: share this method with everyone you know.
Teach the Reach today!