Dooring: Playing Devil’s Advocate

Background Reading


The subject of dooring has come up again. Eric Jaffe writes:

Earlier this week the Virginia state Senate passed a bill that protects bicyclists and other drivers from ramming into the open door of a parked carThe bill prevents people from opening car doors on the traffic side of the street “unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so,” under penalty of $100 fine. In other words, the legislature thinks that if you swing a car door into traffic and cause an accident, you should be accountable.

Logical enough, right? Not everyone thinks so. William Howell, House Speaker for the state legislature, told the Washington Post in December that this type of law belongs in a file he calls”the stupidest bills.” Columnist Kerry Dougherty of The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk-based paper, went a step further and labeled the dooring bill an “asinine measure” (via the Post‘s Northern Virginia blog):

Does any sane Virginian believe that larding this onto the already bloated state code will do one thing to prevent drivers from unsafely opening their car doors into traffic?

First, The Pros

Obviously the two Virginia legislators are arguing what is essentially the NRA-style defense that doing nothing is best since you cannot legislate good judgment. I am almost surprised that they did not work in the 2nd Amendment into their comments and offer an alternative piece of legislation to curb access to driver’s side car doors to the mentally ill. That would have sealed the deal for me in terms of understanding their viewpoint.

But clearly this sort of bill has been on the books in one form or another in many states for quite some time and it has had little to do with cycling. It has had everything to do with establishing fault in the event that a car-vs-car “door”-ing occurred. The cycling issue is relatively new and deserves some consideration.

The first thing I would want to know as a jurist is who has preeminence in a bike lane. I would assume that ether the cyclist should have it or that it is shared equally by all. The next thing to ask is who can lawfully use the bike lane. There are some cyclists who are under the impression that only people on pedal-driven two-wheeled vehicle are cyclists. They have actually mused on whether using tasters mounted on lances would be effective in getting across the point of their ownership to pedestrians, joggers and probably wheelchair riders.

The last thing I would want to know is why if cyclists (and perhaps others) have access to these lanes are they positioned to the left of automobiles and in fact these lanes run right through the door’s midsection? If these lanes are being positioned in this manner then does not the state have some responsibility for essentially creating the potential for conflict through their juxtaposition of the bike lane and parking locations?

Next, The Cons

Most accidents involving cyclists and motorists do not involve direct line-of-sight by the cyclist. For instance a “right hook” can occur in situations where the cyclist is obvious to a fast moving vehicle that has entered an intersection and made an incautious right turn without looking to see if a cyclist was present. This to my mind is clearly a situation in which all of the fault resides with the motorist.

But in the situation where a door-ing occurs things are a bit muddled. Unless the door is opened at a point where the cyclist past the door and the motorist opens it (the door) without looking and pushes the cyclist into the left car lane, the cyclist is the only one of the two with a direct line of sight. The standard Effective Cycling teaching on ride adjacent to cars is to “avoid the door zone“.

This is usually a swath of three feet from the left side of the vehicle (not unlike the three feet cars are supposed to give cyclists when passing on the left of said cyclist) and if avoided ensures that no door-ing can occur. But it is the placement of the bike lane that creates a problem. If the lane is so narrow as to make it impossible for the cyclist to swerve to avoid an opening door (assuming that they cannot safely stop in time) then does not the state have some culpability here? Is it not the case that the lane itself is too narrow? Does the state not have some liability in having chosen that placement and that particular bike lane width?

Do’s and Don’ts In Bike Lanes

I take the position that as both “a permitted and intended user” of the streets there are some situations in which I am not allowed to place the blame for my negligence onto someone’s shoulders. I do not subscribe to the notion that the bigger vehicle is always at fault. Neither do I subscribe to the notion that the bicycle lane is solely the realm of cyclists. I would argue that wheelchair riders, pedestrians and joggers have just as much right to this lane as do cyclists. The advent of velomobiles will bring about some soul searching on the part of two wheelers when they realize that a vehicle with three wheels, electric assist and a cruising speed of 30 MPH is now sharing their precious bike lane.

But there is another reason to be more flexible about lane ownership. When street designs are lacking (as is the case with intersection of Jackson and Morgan) cyclists need to reclaim their ownership of the entire street. They need not only to be able to “take the lane” but change lanes to move from the left side of a three lane wide one-way street to the right side of that roadway to effect a right turn. Otherwise what was the real purpose of the Boub fight?

Zebra Crosswalks

These are crosswalks where pedestrian rights take preeminence. Some cyclists are unaware of the problem of not allowing pedestrians to venture across without being accosted. It is high time that the knee jerk reaction to door-ings be seen alongside the responsibility of all users of the roadway to stay alert for one another.