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.
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