Gotham Gazette

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A New Year’s Resolution to Save Lives: Do The Dutch Reach

bike riding new york city

(photo: New York City Department of Transportation)

One of the New York City Department of Transportation’s bicycling safety tips, “Watch out for car doors,” seems straightforward until a door unexpectedly opens and catapults you into oncoming traffic. Several of this year’s bicycling fatalities came from dooring incidents, an action for which drivers face a whopping $150 fine and slap on the wrist if they face any consequences at all. The driver who doored me earlier this month on Fulton Street in Brooklyn seemed perfectly indifferent to the situation.

Opening a car door carelessly is illegal, and not just in New York City. Article 24 of the United Nations 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic prohibits opening a vehicle door “without having made sure that to do so cannot endanger other road-users.” Though the United States is not one of the 36 signatories or 78 parties bound by the convention, much of America follows similar rules, including New York.

Despite Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths in the five boroughs, cycling fatalities are on the rise. De Blasio’s original plan had noble aims, including: strengthen laws that punish unsafe driving, amend driver education to improve car-bicycle interactions, redesign priority intersections, and add new bike lanes to our streets. Five years later, we have 82 miles of new bike lanes, a large number of redesigned intersections, and more failure-to-yield summonses, but otherwise a wishlist of legislative activity and a single dooring-related line in the New York State driver’s manual. All the while, 29 cyclists have died this year, each story an unnecessary tragedy. To call these crashes “accidents” is to ignore that there was a driver sitting behind the wheel, or opening a car door, every time a vehicle barrelled into someone.

New York City is facing monumental challenges as it enters a new decade. Our subway is languishing. NYCHA housing conditions are deplorable. We need to build new borough-based facilities for our jail population. And climate change may flood us before we address any of these. With so many competing priorities, I understand why bicycle safety is not at the top of most people’s lists.

But looking out for cyclists before opening a car door is a straightforward fix to a devastating problem. In a time when we can be overwhelmed by the complexity of our city’s troubles, let alone what’s happening nationally and globally, looking before you open could be the easiest life-saving New Year’s resolution you’ve ever made.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson talks about breaking New York City’s “car culture” with new bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian plazas. His plans sound great, but they will take time. And during that time, cyclists will continue to die. We need to also think smaller and take some personal responsibility for the safety of our streets. If every driver and passenger looked carefully before opening a car door, using a simple practice called the Dutch reach -- using one’s far hand to pull the handle while also looking to see if it’s clear -- we would have a safer city. No new construction required.

dutch reach note on handle barbara beckwithDutch reach reminder (by Barbara Beckwith via Dutch Reach Project)

I do not pretend that cyclists are without blame. I have seen them ignore traffic lights, swerve in and out of bike lanes, salmon, and ride in darkness without any reflective gear or lights. These irresponsible cyclists give us all a bad reputation. Ultimately, though, there is an uneven power dynamic at play: my bicycle and I weigh a combined 165 pounds compared to a car’s approximately 3,900. When I ride, I strap some styrofoam to my head, which pales in comparison to a car’s airbags and crumple zones. If there is a turf war for space on the road, the outcome is simple: my bicycle and I will lose. Anyone who pretends cyclists and vehicles are on a level playing field has never been thrown into traffic by an unexpectedly opening door.

2020 should be the year cycling fatalities plummet to zero, and we don’t need to wait for long-promised infrastructure to make it happen. (A green stripe of paint along a narrow street doesn’t seem like much protection anyway.) One simple way to reduce the number of cyclists who die on our streets is to look before we open our car doors. It sounds almost silly in its simplicity. But it will save lives.

Benjamin Heller is a graduate student at NYU's Robert Wagner School of Public Service. On Twitter @BenjaminHeller0.

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