Exit with care
The latest dramatic car dooring incident in Melbourne revealed confusion over the road rules. Simon Vincett investigates the laws, risks and rewards of riding in the city.
It’s the kind of incident that can rattle the bones of any road user—and it can happen in a split second.
A simple, thoughtless action. That is, opening a car door into the path of an oncoming bike rider.
And it happened quite spectacularly in March this year when Jane* was riding along Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD.
Her helmet and handlebar cameras were filming her ride home from work when a passenger in a Taxi opened the car door. It happened at the exact same time she was passing. The footage was brutal—but luckily for Jane she was uninjured.
Jane’s three-and-a-half minute Youtube video caused a mainstream media sensation when it appeared in March, not just because of the graphic collision, but also for the disturbing human interaction that followed.
When Jane asked for the man’s details, to repair any damage to her bike—she received quite a reception.
“I was very shocked,” Jane explained
“There wasn’t any empathy, he didn’t ask whether I was okay (the cyclists were the ones asking me if I was okay) and they were acting completely contrary to how I’d expect a person to act when they’d just hit someone,” she added.
Instead of providing his details, the man placed the blame on Jane—accusing her of riding “illegally and irresponsibly” along Collins Street.
He and his two companions walked off. Not wanting to give up, and accompanied by another bike rider, Jane walked after the departing men and continued to ask for the details, which the man refused.
“I wanted them to give me contact details as is expected in any collision. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t do so. Also one of the other cyclists who was helping me had said to me to follow them, find out where they were going and call the police so they could be identified,” she said.
The men vehemently believed they were legally in the right, so too did Jane. The flurry of media saw the man, a 65-year-old from Brighton meet with police to clarify his legal position.
He was fined for causing a hazard by opening a car door into the path of a person/vehicle (a fine of around $352).
It was a much happier case than that of James Cross, 22, who was tragically killed after colliding with a car door, and being thrown into oncoming traffic in the inner Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn in 2010.
His heartbreaking story led to a raft of recommendations of education of road users about their responsibilities relating to opening their car door.
It also led to fines being doubled for “dooring”—the same fine handed to the Brighton man.
Why do riders carry video cameras? Jane explains:
“I read cycling forums and had read about other people’s experiences when dealing with collisions or poor awareness by other road users and the consensus on the forums had been that it was safer to have a camera on the bike just in case something happened (so that I wasn’t relying on faulty memory).
“I didn’t have a camera on my bike for over a year (I’ve been commuting every day of the working week for almost 3 years), but other people’s stories made me think getting one might be worthwhile just in case anything happened to me. And with the price of HD video cameras being fairly affordable, I thought it would be worthwhile getting more than one. [Soft Break]“The cameras are on whenever I ride (unless I forget to charge the batteries or the memory card is full!).”
Laws throughout Australia and in most Western countries, place the onus on drivers and passengers of motor vehicles to ensure that they do not cause a collision by opening their door to alight from or board a vehicle. The recent Collins Street incident highlighted that there is still widespread confusion about car dooring as an offence – and the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved.
It also highlighted the confusion over a bike’s legal rights on the road.
There was much debate in the media about whether or not the place on Collins Street where the incident occurred was a formal bike lane.
However, it’s an irrelevant argument because bike riders are legally allowed to overtake other vehicles on the left, whether there is a bike lane or not.
For Jane it was important, that the men learned from the incident.
When she posted the YouTube clips to two cycling forums, she did not expect the mainstream media to take up the story.
“The videos themselves are not public but can be viewed if you have the link. The people on these two forums took up the links and reposted them on their blogs, reddit, etc. I believe the mainstream media discovered the videos through one of the cycling advocates’ posts,” she said.
“I am glad that the issue has been publicised. Without the media coverage I believe he [the man who doored Jane] would have thought he’d done nothing wrong. I feel there has been a positive outcome from my incident as the public has been further educated about this potential issue. As a bike rider I was very aware of dooring and hopefully the public are now more aware that there being other road users (including bike riders) that use the roads and that care should always be taken when using the roads.”
Government officers at local and state level throughout Australia are daily employed at the task of assisting people to share the roads, in the interest of public safety and efficient transport. A task group of officers from the inner-Melbourne councils of Port Phillip, Yarra, Stonnington and Melbourne, has identified car dooring as the greatest safety concern for bike riders within their municipalities, and sought the involvement of experts including Bicycle Network in developing countermeasures.
The group, called Road Safety Action Group Inner Melbourne (RSAGIM), describes its purpose as “working to make Inner Melbourne safer for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users and motorcyclists.” Their challenge is to work with the transport complexity and density of a large, modern city.
In 2012 RSAGIM sought a deeper understanding of car dooring and commissioned Dr Cameron Munro of CDM Research to investigate. The aim was to comprehend the behaviours of all parties involved and to assess the risks. Munro’s report provides key revelations about the landscape of the dooring issue.
1. Dooring is main crash type for bike riders in the dense, complex traffic network of Inner Melbourne. “These cyclist injuries represented 19.4% of all cycling injuries reported to police, constituting the most common crash type…26% resulted in the rider being admitted to hospital [constituting] the most common crash type leading to hospitalisation.”
2. Female riders and young adults are doored more often. “Females represent 37% of dooring casualties, compared with 32% of all cycling injuries. Young adults aged 18 to 29 constitute 43% of dooring casualties but 36% of other cycling injuries.”
About this Munro hypothesizes: “Generalisations are not always helpful but females are generally seen as being more risk averse and therefore more comfortable riding up against parked cars than your average male rider.”
3. The driver’s door is most common hazard. “75% of car dooring collisions occurred when the driver door was opened into the path of an oncoming cyclist.”
4. In the Inner Melbourne area, incidents are clustered on four streets with sporadic incidents elsewhere. “30% of all crashes occurred on four streets (St Kilda Road, Collins Street, Chapel Street and Elizabeth Street) and the most common ten streets represent 47% of all dooring crashes involving cyclists.”
The research showed that dooring was not just a driver-behaviour issue, but that the specific nature of the street environment was also a significant influence.
This fact was highlighted by James Cross’ case. James was killed on Glenferrie Road as he rode to university along the busy Melbourne retail strip with kerbside parking, a tram route and busy traffic.
The outcry over Cross’s death from the public and bike advocacy groups, and recommendations of the subsequent Coroner’s report, spurred the Victorian Government to respond. Boroondara Council devised a unique solution for Glenferrie Road that Bicycle Network’s General Manager of Government and External Relations Garry Brennan described as “an experimental bike lane design”.
Mr Brennan wrote at the time: “The new approach involves a partial green striping of the bike lane in the hope that riders will position themselves on the green portion of the bike lane, which is further out into the road from the parked cars.
“It is envisaged that the design will encourage cars to drive down the tram track alignment and not overlap the bike lane.”
Installation of the lanes was completed in March 2014, with independent evaluation beginning in June 2014.
The initial move by state road authority VicRoads, however, in direct response to a recommendation in the Coroner’s report, was to develop a visual prompt for car occupants to avoid dooring bike riders. In June 2012, the Victorian Roads Minister, Terry Mulder, launched a sticker pack for drivers and passengers to remind them to look out for bike riders before opening their door.
So did car dooring reduce in Victoria? Did the stickers work?
“The answer was really no” says Liz Ampt of Concepts of Change. In mid-2013, commissioned by RSAGIM, she assessed the effectiveness of stickers as a tool to encourage drivers and passengers “to look for bicycles every time they park and to wait for them to pass before opening the door.”
“Most people reported that static visual reminders (such as stickers) quickly become ‘part of what is usually there’ and are no longer noticed” says Ampt.
“I think it’s quite a reasonable thing to think that the stickers might work,” she continues “But they need to be in conjunction with more awareness of the issue. Most people have no idea of the frequency or severity of car dooring incidents in inner Melbourne nor that it is the driver’s or passenger’s responsibility to look. The phrase ‘car dooring’ was not very well known at all”
Ampt’s most interesting insight was into the complexity of the parking task for the driver. She intercepted drivers who had just parked on one of the dooring hotspot streets and asked them about the process.
“People reported usually being in somewhat of a tense state of mind when driving along these streets due to the congestion and the multiple stimuli of other cars, people, bicycles, signs and anticipated unexpected occurrences. The tense state of mind, coupled with the difficulty of finding a parking space, often means drivers are so relieved when they find one that they immediately relax and are less aware of their surroundings, with opening doors and checking for bikes not on their mind. They tell this story carefully because they’re telling a story of self-interest but that’s what happens.”
The infrequency of doorings in the lives of car users works against bike riders because it just doesn’t occur to drivers and passengers to think about it. Ampt explains, “Cyclists were not reported as the top frustrations along any of the streets. While this is positive, it also shows that cyclists are not at the top of people’s minds as street users.”
Also positive is Ampt’s finding that an effective message to people is to think that if they open their door without looking they might hurt someone. “The message of ‘not wanting to injure someone’ is likely to be a better incentive than fines for most people, although fines are likely to remain important for others,” she recommends.
Bicycle Network’s CEO Craig Richards said while the incident in Collins Street highlighted the dooring issue, the statistics showed that the number of doorings since James Cross’ tragic event is dropping.
Mr Richards said while there’s more than one solution to the issue—the best one is proper infrastructure—separated bike lanes.
“On busy streets there should be a physical separation between cars and bikes. If there is to be car parking it should be on the right hand side of the bike rider so the rider can be next to the curb. This means riders have space to ride free from opening doors, particularly from drivers.’
He also encouraged riders to be alert.
”While the law is clear that dooring is the driver’s or passenger’s fault, that’s little comfort if you’re seriously injured. Where there aren’t separated lanes riders should take great care. Ride outside the door opening zone, watch the parked cars and use your bell if you see a driver in the car. Remember that the danger is in front of you.”
Despite the confusion for many road users, Jane doesn’t think a lack awareness is an excuse for dooring.
“I don’t believe dooring was a little-known issue. I wasn’t riding a bike when I heard about James Cross’ death and that event was in the back of my mind while driving and when I started riding to work in 2012. I just think people need to be constantly reminded to take care when on the roads and to be aware of what is happening around them as we all tend to forget and just assume that there won’t be anyone there.”
Dooring and the road rules
- It is an offense to open a vehicle door into the path of bike riders, pedestrians or any traffic, or to create a hazard by leaving a vehicle door open. (*Rule 269(3))
- A pedestrian must not cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a rider or unreasonably obstruct the path of any rider. (*Rule 236)
- Bike riders are allowed to overtake on the left of other vehicles, including in the absence of a bike lane. (*Rule 141)
- Bike riders are entitled to ride wide enough from parked cars in order to remain clear of the door zone. (*Rule 247)
- If you are in a vehicle collision, whether you are at fault or not, you must help people who are injured, and exchange names and addresses with all people involved. (*Rule 287)
- If you are forced into traffic to avoid an opening door and are hit by a vehicle, the person opening the door will still be held legally responsible. Get the details of all the vehicles involved. (*Rule 269(3))
Always be sure to report a crash to the police, even if you can walk away relatively unharmed. You can’t be sure if you won’t need to claim and by reporting collisions the prevalence of dooring is recorded and can be addressed.
* Australian Road Rules, February 2012 version
Ride On offers tips for avoiding car dooring in a previous article.
*Jane is not her real name.
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