Traffic School: The Door Zone

Riding on the road is safer than riding on the sidewalk but, unless you know what to look for, it’s easy to accidentally put yourself at risk. The dangerous mistake I see riders make most regularly is riding in “the Door Zone”. In this post, we’ll look at how to keep yourself safe from opening car doors and ride more safely and comfortably in the street!

Being “doored” and “winning the door prize” are somewhat lighthearted monikers for what poses a real threat to riders: people opening car doors in front of a bike causing a collision. Every year hundreds of riders are killed or injured by what is an entirely solvable conflict over poorly-shared space.

If you’ve spent any time riding in the city, you’ve seen it happen – you’re riding down the street, keeping an eye on traffic, heading to work/the coffee shop/the grocery store, and a parked car’s door pops open suddenly. If you’re too close, it’s a collision and likely some broken bones (and a broken bicycle). Or worse, you instinctively swerve away from the door – and into traffic. A majority of the dooring deaths that occur every year are riders knocked into and under the moving traffic to their left. So how do we solve this?

Sure, drivers have an obligation to check for traffic before opening their doors, but the sad fact is that most don’t because they’re not looking for bikes (or cars either because cars don’t drive in the door-zone). In the Netherlands, part of your driving test involves opening the driver door with your right hand, a technique that twists the drivers body around to guarantee they can make sure it’s clear before opening. While some might argue that American drivers are incapable of such a maneuver now that more than 1/3 of our country is obese, the fact is that a majority of drivers won’t look when exiting a car, so you have to protect yourself. And you can! By riding outside of the door zone.

If you’re on a road with parked cars, imagine a line 5-feet away from them. Everything between that imaginary line and the parked cars is the door zone (because the average car door is 5-feet wide). Stay to the left of the line, and you’re in the clear! Ride to the right of the line and you put yourself at risk – it’s as simple as that. You want to be far enough away that when a door pops open you don’t hit it and you don’t instinctively swerve into traffic to avoid it.

It seems like common sense, you never see a car driving in the door zone because people recognize it’s a dangerous place to be moving at speed, but new riders tend to take “as far right as practicable” to mean “as far right as possible” and that’s where the issues start. The conflict is compounded when cities build “door-zone bike lanes” that suggest to the uninitiated that the door zone is the only place a bike can legally ride. Which is true, right up until it becomes un-practicable (unsafe in practice) to do so. If you’re on a street with only a door-zone lane, your safest legal maneuver is just to take the adjacent traffic lane. Most door zone bike lanes are 5-feet wide (so they do a perfect job of illustrating where not to ride), but that means you don’t want to ride the white line as it still puts you in jeopardy of being knocked or swerving into traffic, and it means traffic in the adjacent lane will be passing you closely. Instead, check over your shoulder, signal, and take the lane. It may feel weird at first, and but the first time you pass an opening door that would’ve ended your day – you’ll realize that weird feeling beats a hospital or morgue trip by a mile.

Many cities have started rolling out harsher penalties for dooring, educating drivers on the dangers of not looking before opening their doors, and the implementation of buffered or protected bike lanes does a better job of keeping people out of harm’s way, but until the infrastructure is everywhere – keep yourself safe and avoid riding in the door zone.

For more tips on riding safely in the streets, check out this episode of Pure Fix TV:

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