The Dutch Reach: Saving the Lives of Bicyclists in Boston

Bicyclists who frequent urban areas often ride next to long lines of parked cars. In these areas, “dooring” accidents are common. When parked drivers and passengers open their car doors without looking, they may create an unavoidable obstacle for oncoming bicyclists. However, a practice in the Netherlands may hold the solution to this common traffic hazard.

Bicycling in Boston

Thousands of people ride the streets of Boston on bicycles for transportation, recreation, and exercise. As more locals and visitors join the movement for better health, a better environment, and lower travel costs, the risk for bicycle-related accidents increases. Dooring – the act of opening a vehicle door into an oncoming bike’s path – is just one of the many hazards that bicyclists face on busy city streets. It’s also highly preventable.

In bicycle accidents involving vehicle doors, cyclists may experience a variety of outcomes. If the door does not directly hit a cyclist, it may cause him or her to swerve into traffic and strike a moving vehicle. At low speeds, these incidents may only cause a few bumps, bruises, and hurt feelings. At higher speeds, however, they result in serious injuries or death.

The Dutch Reach

A retired doctor from Cambridge, Michael Charney, wants to get the word out about a practice drivers in the Netherlands have used for years. Instead of reaching for the door handle with the nearest hand and opening the door without pause, drivers in the Netherlands reach for the door with the opposite hand. The action naturally causes a vehicle occupant to turn and look outside the vehicle. The simple act of switching hands alerts drivers to bicyclists approaching the vehicle from behind.

In the Netherlands, drivers must demonstrate this technique for leaving a vehicle during their driving test. The practice is simple, free, and effective at preventing dooring incidents. Charney coined the term the “Dutch Reach” after exploring Western European driving practices in an older New York Times article. The concept is simple and the term is memorable – bicycling enthusiasts see the movement as a positive way to encourage safer traveling habits and reduce traffic incidents.

Who Is Liable in Door-Related Accidents?

If drivers and passengers in parked vehicles adopt the Dutch Reach, injured bicyclists and their attorneys may not ask this question as often. Under current laws, no one may open a vehicle door with the intent to interfere with a bicyclist, but most motor vehicle occupants do not intend to endanger bicyclists. They do so carelessly. Massachusetts uses a comparative negligence rule to determine liability in personal injury cases. This standard prevents plaintiffs from collecting damages if they bear responsibility for over 50% of the incident.

In a simplified example, if a bicyclist follows the rules of the road and a vehicle occupant opens the door along a reasonable bicycle thoroughfare and the bicyclist does not have enough time to stop or safely avoid the incident, the courts will likely decide in the bicyclist’s favor. Small details may complicate the case.

Spread the Word

Legal action may stop one driver from engaging in unsafe door-opening behaviors but fail to enact widespread change. If more vehicle drivers and passengers simply switch their door-opening hands, they can prevent needless door-related accidents. Unlike infrastructure changes and other costly safety initiatives, this one free behavior may encourage meaningful change on the roadways in Boston and throughout the country.

If you regularly park on the streets of Boston or in another urban environment, put a note on your dashboard to remind yourself to use your right hand (if you are a driver) or your left hand (on the passenger side) to open the door. Try it out. The Dutch Reach could save you from injuring a cyclist and accident liability.

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