It is always a pleasure to find out that the law is in our favor when bicyclists have a conflict on the road with motorists. Usually, conflicts relate to the question of who has the right to the same space at the same time. Usually a motorist fails to see a bicycle rider and opens a door so close to the bicycle that an accident or near miss occurs. Bicycle messengers call it being “car-doored”. While defensive riding can go a long way toward avoiding painful encounters with car doors, sometimes there is just nothing that a rider can do–everything just happens too fast. Fortunately, this is one of those areas where the law is on the side of the bicycle rider.
Oregon’s Vehicle Code (remember bicycles are “vehicles” too) prohibits opening the door of any vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so:
“ORS 811.490 Improper opening or leaving open of vehicle door; penalty.
- (1) A person commits the offense of improper opening or leaving open a vehicle door if the person does any of the following:
- (a) Opens any door of a vehicle unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so and it can be done without interference with the movement of traffic, or with pedestrians and bicycles on sidewalks or shoulders.
- (b) Leaves a door open on the side of a vehicle available to traffic, or to pedestrians or bicycles on sidewalks or shoulders for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.
- (2) The offense described in this section, improper opening or leaving open a vehicle door, is a Class D traffic infraction. “
The scheduled bail amount for a Class D Traffic Infraction is $90.00, and the fine is the same. Note that the law makes it illegal not only to open the door when it interferes with people trying to get by, but it is also illegal to leave the door open longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.
One would think that the law is so clear cut that disputes would never arise over who was right and wrong in this type of an accident. Frequently, the motorist is apologetic and completely willing to accept blame at the scene (in spite of the advice on many insurance identification cards “do not accept fault for the accident”), but by the time the motorist thinks about it and talks to an insurance adjuster or attorney, frequently their view of the accident changes. The revised version goes something like this: “I opened my car door with plenty of distance behind me for the approaching bicyclist to see it. If the bicyclist had been paying attention, he or she would have seen that my door was open and ridden around it. Since I only intended to have the door open long enough to get out of the car, the accident is mostly the fault of the bicyclist. ” Believe it or not, this argument is enough to inject a note of comparative negligence on the part of the bicyclist into the equation in most cases.
The percentage of comparative fault works a pro rata reduction in the amount of damages, so the effect is significant. Add the fact that most of the members of any jury will identify primarily with the motorist, not the bicycle rider, and you have a recipe for disappointment for an injured bicycle rider. Remember, under Oregon’s system of comparative fault, if a jury decides that the motorist was partly at fault for opening the car door (less than 50%) but the bicyclist was mostly at fault (more than 50%) for failing to pay close enough attention and to make a reasonable effort to avoid striking the open door, then the bicyclist loses in court (even though the motorist violated the vehicle code by his or her own admission).
My experience investigating these cases is that in almost every car door accident the motorist is primarily at fault. However, it is essential in every case that the bicyclist carefully remember and reconstruct the scene of the accident to demonstrate that there was not enough time to take necessary evasive action in order to avoid hitting the door. Usually, bicycle riders relate that things just happened too fast. There was simply not enough time to avoid the car door. Nevertheless, there are some things that riders can do to make this surprising and frequently painful event less likely to occur.
Scan The Cars In The Parking Lane
Bicyclists have a duty to ride as far to the right as practicable, but the law allows us to take up to a full lane, if necessary, to avoid hazards like car doors. When riding alongside parked cars, scan ahead and watch for occupants. If there is sun glare on the windows, decorative louvers on the rear window, or some other obstruction that prevents you from seeing through the glass, assume that someone is going to be getting out of a parked vehicle and adjust your place in the road accordingly.
Ride With A Mirror
Most riders choose not to ride with mirrors. There is no law that make mirrors mandatory equipment and many riders have developed the skills necessary to identify approaching cars which may constitute a hazard by sound, and to look behind them without changing their “line” or position in the roadway. These are essential skills for riding around parked cars because if somebody does open a door in front of you, there is frequently very little time to react. If you do not know your position in relation to overtaking traffic, you may find yourself swerving from the car door into the path of an overtaking vehicle.
A simple solution is to ride with a rearview mirror. Mirrors are not looked upon as being cool accessories. Mostly favored by the commuter set, I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone wearing one during the Tour de France. Nevertheless, a properly adjusted mirror is a great safety accessory. I have been riding with either a handlebar-mounted or helmet-mounted mirror for about 15 years. It seems that a mirror provides the rider with the essential instantaneous scanning of the rear view before necessary evasive action. I am not saying that it is unsafe to ride without a mirror, but I have certainly come to rely upon mine.
What about the drivers who open their doors into a bicycle lane? These drivers have a duty to ensure that they are not going to cause a collision when opening their doors. On July 30, 2011, the New York Times ran an opinion piece entitled “The Dutch Way: Bicycles and Fresh Bread“. The article contained an interesting tidbit about
how Dutch drivers are taught to co-exist with cyclists on the streets of their country:
“Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture. “
While it is nice to have the law on your side if you have an encounter with a car door, it is better to avoid the experience in the first place. Stay attentive to the intentions of occupants of parked cars, maintain your distance from parked cars, and consider using a rearview mirror. These are all ways you can avoid having to demonstrate to another driver or an insurance adjuster that the law is on your side in an accident.