Gotham Gazette

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A Spike in Cyclist Deaths, A Call to the Mayor, and The Slow City Adoption of ‘The Dutch Reach’

dot taxi bike lane

Image via NYC TLC training video

Cyclist deaths plagued New York City last year; 2019 had the highest recorded number of such deaths in the last 20 years, and many street safety and cycling advocates have made an effort to raise awareness about the problem and what the city could do to help protect those who ride bicycles in the five boroughs.

This past July, nearly 1,000 people laid on the ground in Washington Square Park in a “die in” to demonstrate the dangers associated with cycling in the city and demand more protection. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, has announced several measures to enhance his signature Vision Zero program that seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities by lowering speed limits, redesigning streets, adding bike lanes, and other measures. But 2019 showed that progress is not moving quickly enough, which de Blasio and Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg have acknowledged, leading to a variety of calls for additional action.

Twenty-eight people were killed while riding a bike in New York City last year, an almost 21% increase in such fatalities from 2018, according to data from the city’s Vision Zero portal. The same data set shows that reported cyclist injuries dropped to 4,221 in 2019 from 4,306 the previous year.

Based on media reports, at least three of the 28 cyclist deaths in 2019 (11%) were the result of “dooring” incidents, which occur when someone opens a car door either into a cyclist or into an approaching cyclist’s path leading to a collision, usually resulting in injury if not death. Sometimes that collision is between the cyclist and the car door, sometimes between a swerving cyclist and an adjacent moving motor vehicle, and sometimes both.

Hugo Garcia, while riding an electric bike, was hit by a car door, then run over after being thrown into traffic in January 2019; 16-year-old Yisroel Schwartz, and 30-year-old Em Samolewicz both swerved to avoid doors before being run over by trucks in May and July 2019, respectively. All three incidents occurred in Brooklyn.

According to Michael Charney, a cycling advocate focused on safety for those who ride bikes, like each of the cyclists who died as a result of dooring in New York City last year, for such incidents “it’s a one-two punch.” The most common way dooring results in a fatal injury is by “being hit by the door or swerving to avoid the door, then run over by another vehicle,” he explained.

Data on doorings is often hard to come by. For example, the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHSTA) doesn’t count doorings as a type of crash. A 2015 study out of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver found that doorings are the most common kind of bike crash in Vancouver, accounting for 15% of cyclist crashes. The second most common were collisions involving a left-turning vehicle, third was collisions involving right-turning vehicles, and fourth was conflict zones, such as driveways and parking lots. 

Charney, a lifelong cyclist who has been “car-free for 30 years,” started the Dutch Reach Project in 2016 after 27-year-old Amanda Phillips was killed by a dooring incident in his Massachusetts neighborhood in June of that year.

The Dutch Reach is a method for opening a car door whereby the person in the car -- whether driver or passenger -- uses their hand furthest from the door to open it. This movement forces one’s upper body to swivel and puts the person in best position to see oncoming traffic. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says that the Dutch Reach creates a chain reaction of five events: reach, swivel, look back, open slowly, exit facing traffic.

According to Charney, the first known use of the Dutch Reach method was in Holland, thus the name, although it didn’t have a name there, it was just how they learned to open car doors. Charney named the method Dutch Reach because he knew it needed to be catchy, simple, and wanted to honor the roots of the method, he said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The goal of Charney’s campaign is to have the Dutch Reach technique institutionalized into increasingly more driver’s manuals and other educational materials.

The term itself has gained some popularity in the U.S. Outside Magazine did a video feature on the method after Charney began his awareness campaign, which now has over 3 million views. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State use the term in their driver’s handbooks, according to Charney. Internationally, the term is catching on as well, including in the United Kingdom, and has been translated in French, Spanish and German, Charney said.

The first study of the efficacy of the Dutch Reach -- which is sometimes called ‘Far Hand Reach’ or ‘Reach Across’-- was done in Nottingham, England, and published in October 2018. The study noted “an observable difference between near and far-hand associated with the level of awareness of rear approaching hazards can be observed when participants were seated in the driver’s seat.” While this study remains the only one to evaluate the Dutch Reach, it is a step toward empirically determining the effect on public safety by using the approach.

Jon Orcutt, director of communications at advocacy group Bike NYC and an avid cyclist in the city, said that he is skeptical that the method will be significant enough to reduce cyclist deaths, but also said anything is worth a try.

“The reason Dutch Reach works is because they’re Dutch. They are taught the method at such a young age, and we’re a far cry from that here,” Orcutt said.

During one of his weekly appearances on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked in June 2019 about the city’s lack of promotion of the Dutch Reach as a method to reduce spiking cyclist deaths. The caller, who identified himself as Pat from Staten Island and said he had a friend who had died in a dooring incident, described the technique and asked the mayor to promote it on the city’s social media accounts.

“I have never heard of it before either and obviously, you know, this city, I’ve been entirely devoted to Vision Zero,” de Blasio said. “I think that sounds like a really good technique. As someone who was a driver myself for many years I can see what you’re saying that it would make you think differently. So I will tell our team to put that out on social media because I think it’s something that would help people to think.”

Just a few hours after the interview, de Blasio’s government account tweeted about the method, saying, “The Dutch Reach’ is a small move that can make big difference in keeping our streets safe for cyclists. Thank you to Pat on Staten Island (by way of Miami) for calling in to @BrianLehrer for this critical reminder. #VisionZero.” The tweet also included the link to a New York Times article from 2018 titled “The Dutch Reach: A No-Tech Way to Save Bicyclists’ Lives,” which featured Charney.

Less than a week later, the city’s Department of Transportation also tweeted about the method, writing, “Getting “doored” is a leading cause of #bikenyc injury. Whether you are a driver or passenger, always look over your shoulder before opening the door. Reach across, using your opposite hand to open your door (i.e. drivers use right hand). Always watch for cyclists. #VisionZero.”

Since then, there has been some movement by the city on integrating the Dutch Reach into its Vision Zero messaging, but it is limited (and the city opts not to use “Dutch Reach” labeling, rather calling it “Reach Across,” in order to give it a more practical label it seems).

Published to YouTube in November of last year, a Department of Transportation training video for drivers of city vehicles, especially trucks, stresses the importance of being aware of pedestrians and bike-riders and shows the use of the Dutch Reach. The video was created in cooperation with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) Fleet and the Vision Zero Fleet Working Group.

“After parking make it a routine to check for cyclists, and let them pass before opening the door. Reach across your body and use your far hand to open the door, this will help shift your body to see cyclists coming from behind you,” the video says. “Turns pose the greatest risk for fatalities and injuries. Scan the intersection ahead for potential hazards, on the approach reduce your speed by two to three miles per hour, cover the break and be prepared to stop.”

That is just one scene in a video that covers a lot of ground in attempting to stress to drivers of city trucks especially that the city is trying to be more pedestrian and bike-friendly and that they have a responsibility to drive safely.

dutch reach promo“This video is specific to drivers of trucks and other large equipment addressing particular issues common to urban environments,” a spokesperson for the city DOT told Gotham Gazette by email. “The “Dutch Reach” or reaching across the body to open the door with the far hand is included in this video,” the spokesperson added, also saying that the DOT is working with DCAS to create “agency-customized materials to accompany the video.”

The DOT has also made efforts to begin broader public education on the Dutch Reach “in light of recent crashes involving dooring,” according to the same spokesperson, who said that “in 2019, NYC DOT developed an infographic used on our social media channels. This infographic was also produced as a palm card that highlights a reach across image on one side and instruction on keeping bike lanes clear on the other.” (The spokesperson did not say how many of the palm cards have been distributed.)

Beyond these efforts, the DOT did not identify any other ways in which the Dutch Reach is being institutionalized among city fleet drivers and passengers or the broader public. The city messages the larger Vision Zero initiative in a wide variety of ways, including bumper stickers and advertisements.

According to the City Planning Department, New York City is home to over 200 different spoken languages. Charney said that given its multicultural nature, it is important to make sure any efforts to inform drivers and cyclists about the Dutch Reach are translated into a variety of languages or wordless descriptions that are universally understandable.

Other states have implemented versions of the Dutch Reach in legislation. Charney’s goal to get the Dutch Reach into legislation was first realized in his home state of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation included the Dutch Reach in its driver’s manual as of May 2017, less than a year after Charney started the campaign. This was closely followed by Illinois and Washington State in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Nationally, the American Association of Automobiles (AAA) has included it in its How To Drive student manual.

Advocacy groups are pushing for the promotion of the Dutch Reach on more facets of the transportation system. The bike community in Boston, including 14 advocacy groups, wrote a letter to app-based taxi companies Lyft and Uber to urge them to include some sort of training or information about cyclist safety in their platforms, Charney said. Uber is now piloting push notifications for passengers in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Toronto to look for bikes if their drop-off location is on a bike route, encouraging passengers to look out for cyclists and cars before exiting.

As for New York City’s larger Vision Zero initiative, implemented beginning in de Blasio’s first year, 2014, it is aimed at achieving zero traffic deaths by 2024, including among those in cars, on bikes, on foot, or in other modes of street transit. According to the five-year report released by the city in March 2019, “overall traffic deaths have fallen by one-third” since 2013, the year before Vision Zero began.There were 299 traffic deaths in 2013 and 2018 saw 202 traffic deaths.

Orcutt said that Vision Zero “often gets misconstrued as targeted zero, but it’s supposed to be more of a philosophical approach where you start making fewer trade-offs with safety, and I don’t think the city’s been nearly aggressive enough in explaining Vision Zero and then executing on the fewer trade-offs.”

In response to the rise in cyclist deaths last year specifically, the city announced “Green Wave: A Plan for Cycling in New York City” in July 2019. It has six main components including expanding protected bike lanes, updating design where fatalities have occurred, expanding NYPD enforcement of traffic violations, promoting legislation/implementing policy, targeting trucks in safety initiatives, and expanding helmet safety awareness. 

“We are ramping up enforcement at crash-prone intersections, and targeting enforcement on high risk activities such as speeding, failing to yield and blocking bike lanes which directly affects bicyclist safety,” said NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan in the press release.

Orcutt said expanding the network of protected bike lanes is one thing that the city is doing a good job with, and is helping improve safety for cyclists on city streets. 

None of the city’s ongoing efforts are specific to dooring, and neither Vision Zero nor Green Wave specifically mention dooring as an issue. Charney and others have suggested that individuals can take charge and begin implementing the Dutch Reach themselves. People can attach a ribbon to their car doors, Charney suggested, to remind themselves to reach with their far hand and helping to create a learned behavior.

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that Massachusetts does indeed name the Dutch Reach in its driver's manuel.

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