Saving Life and Limb By Avoiding the Door Zone

Door_Zone_small.gifDIY Door Zone stencil from Portland, OR. Photo: BikePortland.org

Many urban cyclists have a tale to tell about a car door that swung out into their path and nearly knocked them from their bikes. Hopefully, the story ends there, with no injuries or further harm. Some haven’t been so lucky, however, as they’ve been thrown from their bikes or hit when swerving into traffic. In addition to bearing the physical scars, the memories of collisions with doors has altered their riding habits or led to piqued anxiety.

Michael Smith, a San Francisco cyclist with nearly twenty years of
urban cycling experience, was doored in 2004 by a passenger exiting a cab on Market Street.
Smith was leaving a meeting near 7th and Market and only planned
to travel the length of the block before locking up his bicycle for his
next meeting. He estimated he was traveling no more than 5-10 miles per
hour when a passenger thew open a cab door into his path, hitting his
handlebars and sending him careening into a cement wall above a BART
station. The impact of the fall crushed a vertebra in his back, which has left him in great discomfort that will persist the rest of his life.

"I
feel like I was riding in as safe a way as possible before, but I feel
like I’m even more careful now," said Smith, who continues to ride his
bike for most of his trips in the city. Like many cyclists who have been doored, Smith relives the incident in minute detail as he recalled that his "handlebars barely hit
the door. If they had been in a slightly different location, they would
have avoided it."

According to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority (SFMTA), dooring is the second most common form of injury collision involving cyclists, behind unsafe speed, though the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition points out that dooring is the highest injury collision type caused by motorists or their passengers.

"Education for cyclists to avoid the door zone and empower them to
assert their right to the full lane is important to avoid dooring," said Marc Caswell, SFBC Program Manager. "But,
just as important, is making sure drivers understand why cyclists ride 3
to 5 feet from parked cars."

To increase the rate of enforcement of California Vehicle Code 22517, which states: "No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic," the SFBC has worked with the San Francisco Police Department to educate officers about citing motorists, as shown in the SFPD training video above. The SFBC has also worked in the past with taxis and other professional drivers to increase awareness and reduce the incidence of dooring injuries.

In addition to numerous motorist education campaigns, the SFBC and SFMTA provide
regular bicycle safety classes, many of them led by Bert Hill, Chairman
of San Francisco’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. Hill teaches
approximately twenty five classes per year to new cyclists or those
wishing to gain better cycling skills, with in-class training followed
by rides in traffic. According to Hill, a great deal of focus is paid
to riding outside of the door zone and avoiding unsafe passing to the
right of turning vehicles, a tendency many new cyclists have when they
see pedestrians in a crosswalk and think they can squeeze around the front of the turning vehicle.

Though it’s counter-intuitive, said Hill, the safest place to ride is not close to parked vehicles, but out near moving traffic. Unlike the frequency of dooring, cyclists are rarely overtaken by vehicles coming up from behind. By riding further from parked cars, according to Hill, cyclists also avoid swerving into traffic at the last second when a door is opened, as illustrated in the following clip (courtesy Bert Hill):

According to Caswell, education alone won’t prevent unsafe conditions; the city must do more to change how streets are designed. "Beyond education, we intend to help address dooring collisions by
continuing to push for buffered bike lanes," said Caswell, referring to bike lanes that are separated from parked cars with physical dividers like the soft-hit posts recently added to the Market Street bike lane, or by putting bicycle lanes between the curb and parked vehicles.

Bridget Smith, the director of the SFMTA’s Livable Streets Program,
said striping teams strive to give cyclists as much room as possible,
despite restrictive statewide standards imposed by Caltrans.

"Our
standards are much more generous than the state standards," said Smith,
explaining that parking lanes in the city are typically 8 feet wide and bike lanes
are 5 feet wide. To address dooring and street width,
the SFMTA will widen the parking lane first so that the bike lane is
further from the parked cars, said Smith. The SFMTA also paints its sharrows well
away from the curb to encourage cyclists to ride outside the door zone.

The SFBC’s Caswell noted that sharrows can be helpful for strong cyclists who are confident, but many youth, the elderly, and inexperienced cyclists
feel too intimidated to ride in traffic. Without buffered bicycle lanes, argued Caswell, the city would not be encouraging enough new riders.

"By
separating cyclists from high speed traffic and including a 3 foot
buffer on the less-used passenger side, we can easily encourage
more riders and reduce dooring injuries," said Caswell.

For cyclists like Michael Smith, the prospect of buffered lanes would be comforting. "It really makes me appreciate the protected lane on Market because it prevents problems like this from happening," said Smith, referring to his collision with the cab.

"I don’t want to dwell on the fear thing," he said, "but it makes me want to make sure the streets are safer."

The next bicycle safety class offered by the SFBC will be on Thursday, March 4, 5:30pm – 9:30pm at the SFBC Office, 995 Market St., Ste. 1550, San Francisco. More information on bicycle safety from the MTA can be found here.

Bikes_Ride_Here_Sharrow_Campaign.jpgTwo campaigns coordinated by the SFBC and the MTA. MTA’s Bridget Smith said the agency would launch a new sharrow campaign this summer.
Ride_outside_small.jpg
  • I want to live in this land of 5′ bike lanes!

  • Andy Chow

    I think an education component should involve drivers to ask them to look at the rear view mirror and check the surrounding before opening the door. Because I park on a narrow street I always look before I open the door. Taxi door should be locked on the traffic side to encourage passengers to exit on the curb side. Allowing riders to exit on the street side is dangerous other than the risk of dooring a bicyclist.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    It sounds like the person referenced in the article was doored while passing on the curb side of a taxi. That is a crazy stunt which I would not recommend. I cringe every morning on Market St as I watch bicyclists passing cabs, buses, and trucks on the right side with inches to spare. It’s amazing that more of these people don’t get hurt.

  • Yes, I was on the curbside. Of course the cab never pulled over towards the curb as they are required to, but one should keep in mind that people don’t always follow the rules.

  • Andrew

    Where is this fantasy land that cops give a shit about cyclists’ rights?

    One thing the video didn’t mention is that getting rear-ended while cycling is one of the least likely ways that a cyclist will get into a collision, while dooring is the most likely. To that I say, “Up with statistics; down with fear!”

  • More space for bikes and more education but also technical innovations for road vehicles. Some ideas:

    * All road vehicles with swing doors have technology which delays opening for three seconds, during which some extra gizmo on the relevant side signal would flash in a particular pattern.

    * Sliding doors for all vehicles, like on the Peugeot 1007 .

    * For taxis, make drivers responsible for doors: They cannot open until the driver permits it with a master switch.

  • Addendum regarding the 1007 or similar – Doors like this have three other advantages, in addition to eliminating dooring (those of course a driver or passenger themselves could become an obstacle, this could be reduced with a variant of the gizmo idea, above):

    1 – Eliminates problems of heavy doors (esp. on two-door vehicles) especially in a place like SF (hard to fight against gravity when leaving vehicle pointed uphill AND gravity swinging door open when pointed downhill).
    2 – Reduces dooring of other vehicles (ja, I know).
    3 – Reduces space needed between vehicles (not to increase amount of parking density, BUT to simply make vehicle easier to get in and out of, and also to eliminate additional maneuver required to get passenger in or out in a tight space.)

    Bonus idea for fans of “Clockwork Orange”: Genetically engineer people so that “Watch for cyclists” is etched into their eyeballs, readable from inside.

  • TIMTOWTDI

    This is a SERIOUS flaw with our bike lanes. Please explain to me how we can wait several years for these laughably meager bits of infrastructure, stripes of paint, and yet still there is a serious safety hazard ENGINEERED into the design. Big numbers or not in the SFBC, we are still in the dark ages.

    Go ahead and try riding down Fell between Scott and Baker in the position advocated for safety from doors during rush hour. It’s a rock and hard place on one of the busiest bike routes of the city.

  • Nick

    I had a door of a taxi fling out at me at 6th and Market the other day. I sidearmed it back shut and kept riding. The oblivious passenger most likely was quite startled.

  • Tony

    The city needs to have buffered bike lanes. The current bike lanes are badly designed and are not wide enough to accommodate a bicyclist. I was almost doored while riding IN the bike lane on Geneva Ave. A huge issue with me is that some motorists do not signal they are turning right. If they did, I would know what their intent is, and I would wait and pass on the left rather than cut in front of them on the right.

  • Once you get doored you will never ride again within 4 feet of a car door without fear. It is probably a good lesson, if a painful one.

  • Peter Smith

    i swung waaaaay wide of the driver/non-curb side of a taxi tonight (and slowly) — we were headed in the same direction — and i suspect the driver of the cab even told the passenger not to open his door yet because he saw me coming up behind. you can get it from either side.

  • one problem i never hear discussed that i think is related is when MUNI discharges its passengers into bike lanes. they sometimes do not even pull over, are not at a stop, and simply start disgorging passengers. i have had several almost-collisions and one actual collision this way. if i am already alongside the bus and it is daylight there is no way to see those little orange hazard lights.

  • peternatural

    A long time ago, when my brother was a teenager and didn’t know better, he was riding his bike in the door zone when a woman in a parked car flung her door open directly in his path and put her foot out onto the street. It was too late to avoid colliding with the door, so he aimed for the woman’s leg. I guess he figured they should both bear some of the pain. Needless to say, the woman wasn’t happy! But it may have helped make the point for her that it’s important to look first.

  • sarah

    The typos (assualt?), spelling errors (hazzard?), and use of totally unreadable fonts in that police training video are regrettable. No wonder police officers are so confused about cyclist rights.

  • Andrew B

    The only cycle lanes I get to use are narrower than 5 foot, but I always found they seemed to invite motorists to open their doors without looking. They don’t do this on narrow streets, where the next car will take their door off. (Actually my dad once hit the door of an idiot who did that on a narrow UK street.)
    So I ride at the outer limit of our narrow lanes, & I’m sceptical about the safety benefits.
    Has anyone done a before & after study when streets get bike lanes?

  • Jeremy

    There was a before and after study of door zone bike lanes installed on Hampshire St in Cambridge, MA about five years ago. The city touted that people rode farther from parked cars, but actually the study showed that they only rode an average of six inches further away, still well inside the door zone.

  • Shu

    I drive large vehicles and also ride bicycles. And here’s something that came to mind: If someone opened a door while I was driving a truck and I took out their door. It is the fault of the person not paying attention that opened their door onto the oncoming traffic. And since bicycle riders are expected to follow traffic rules. The same should apply, where the person opening the door should be responsible for damages, and injury. 

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