Bicyclists have long struggled to fit in on Chicago streets. Although they first won the legal right to use roadways in the late 1800s, even after over a century of progress, Chicago cyclists still face a wide range of daily threats.
Nationwide, almost half of cyclists ride primarily on paved roads; sidewalks are another popular option. But, riding intermingled with traffic presents obvious dangers, and even when sidewalks are available, bikes are often banned in areas with heavy pedestrian saturation.
Designated bike lanes are the compromise that has proliferated in Chicago and many other major metropolitan areas in recent years. Chicago currently hosts an impressive 117 miles of on-street bike lanes that are proving ever more popular. Yet, despite the perceived safety benefits of dedicated bike lanes, cyclists who use them are particularly susceptible to one of the most common sources of rider injuries: so-called “dooring” accidents.
What Is Known About Dooring In Chicago
Dooring accidents occur when a vehicle door is suddenly opening in the path of an oncoming bicyclist. Under Illinois law, motorists are required to look for approaching bicyclists before exiting their vehicles. But, this requirement is often overlooked, forgotten or simply never learned in the first place.
Until quite recently, the Illinois Department of Transportation did not track incidents in which cyclists were doored. The reason? These accidents do not involve vehicles that are in motion.
“That’s just not appropriate,” Kim Nishimoto, who lost her son in a 2008 dooring accident, told the Chicago Tribune regarding IDOT’s failure to include dooring in its statistical reports. “It’s an insult,” she added.
As of April, 2011, IDOT will begin recording dooring numbers and adding them to annual traffic accident summaries. The change was ordered by Governor Pat Quinn in response to appeals from the Active Transportation Alliance and other bicycle safety advocacy groups. Said Governor Quinn to the Chicago Tribune of the policy shift, “One of the best ways we can increase public safety is by making sure we’ve got the best and most comprehensive data possible.”
Unfortunately, IDOT has a lot of catching up to do, and the lack of official dooring statistics makes it difficult to ascertain the scope of the problem. Based on informal surveys of its members, the Active Transportation Alliance believes over half of those who bike on Chicago streets have been doored at least once. The City of Chicago, which has maintained records of dooring accidents reported to police for several years, documented 76 doorings in 2010 and 62 in 2009. However, while representing a substantial number of cyclists, these numbers may be still deceptively low: studies have shown that only a small fraction of bicycle accidents causing injury (as few as 10 percent) are ever recorded by the police.
Overall in Illinois, there were an average of over 3,500 collisions between motor vehicles and bicyclists recorded annually from 2005 to 2009. These crashes resulted in more than 3,300 injuries every year, as well as anywhere between 18 and 27 cyclist deaths. Including dooring accidents in the figures is expected to increase crash numbers by at least 15 percent statewide.
Dooring can result in a wide range of injuries to cyclists. At lower speeds, dooring victims are often lucky enough to get away with only cuts, scrapes and bruises. However, in areas where cyclists are traveling at higher speeds (e.g., streets sloped downhill), severe injuries, including broken bones, head or neck injuries and serious internal damage are all commonplace.
To fully counter the threat posed by unexpectedly opening doors, cyclists would have to ride three to five feet away from parked cars. Yet, most of Chicago’s bike lanes were added long after the original streets were planned, leaving little extra room for cyclists; allowing a space cushion between parked cars sufficient to avoid dooring would usually put cyclists back into traffic, defeating the purpose of bike lanes altogether.
The inclusion of dooring statistics in IDOT reports is a significant step forward in addressing the problem. But, it may take more to significantly reduce the danger posed by dooring in Chicago.
A Chicago city ordinance makes it illegal to open a vehicle door into the path of a bicyclist, with fines for violators of up to $500. The ordinance also makes it unlawful for drivers to come within three feet of cyclists, turn in front of cyclists or drive, stand or park in a bike lane. While 161 tickets were handed out in 2010 by Chicago police for driving, standing or parking in bike lanes, just three were issued for passing a cyclist at an unsafe distance. No citations were written for opening a vehicle door in the path of a cyclist or turning in front of a cyclist.
Unless enforcement of anti-dooring laws is reprioritized, it does not seem likely that fines for offending vehicle occupants are the immediate solution. Some newer Chicago bike lanes, like the one on Kinzie Street, are “protected,” incorporating barriers or a parking lane to physically separate cyclists from cars and provide them with ample maneuvering room. Of course, engineering solutions that alter the roadways are expensive, and difficult to incorporate into existing streets.
Raising driver awareness through various mediums of communication is the only way to ensure more drivers start checking their mirrors for cyclists before popping open their doors. Stepped-up enforcement of anti-dooring laws and the publication of dooring data could both foster this sense of vehicle occupant responsibility. Personal injury lawsuits against motorists who negligently door cyclists also have a significant role to play.
Not only can a lawsuit secure compensation injured cyclists needs to pay for medical bills, lost wages and other damages, they can serve as a publicized reminder that it is not okay to blindly open a vehicle door in Chicago. Get the compensation you deserve, and do your part to make Chicago safer for anyone on a bike. If you have been injured in a dooring incident, contact a Chicago personal injury attorney today.