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Grinding gears: Save a cyclist, and yourself, a lot of grief

(via Shutterstock)

The great blessing of the automobile is that it allows us to travel further and faster than we otherwise could, masters of our own destiny behind the wheel.

The great tragedy of the automobile is that it makes it easier than ever for us to injure others, however unintentionally.

You see this especially in modern cars, which have got so quick and quiet as to goad even the most modest of drivers into slightly extra-legal speeds. And don’t even get me started on the current craze for having huge touchscreens mounted in the dashboard, making sure you’ve got your eyes firmly off the road.

If it were up to me, I’d have the latter all replaced by a large post-it note reading, “Pay Attention Instead.” Sadly, paying attention on the roads is sadly unfashionable, mostly because all the driving aids beeping and blooping away have slightly reduced the consequences for driving while a bit distracted.

However, there’s one area that continues to offer immediate and severe impacts on our fellow road users: the dooring problem. With the sad death of Mike McIntosh this January, killed when knocked under the wheels of a truck trailer, dooring is in the forefront of transportation news on the North Shore these days. So what do we do about it?

Cyclist-motorist interactions are often fraught with emotion and frustration, on the street, and on the opinion pages. During the summer months, when more fair-weather cyclists are on the roads, and traffic getting out-of-school kids to and from camps is up, tensions seem even higher.

It’s likely that things are going to get a little worse, as e-bikes become more popular. Electric bikes are wonderful inventions, especially on our hilly shores, as they iron out the hills and make riding to work or the grocery store a relatively effortless affair. Properly handled, they’re a great way to take the car out of your commute.

But they are quick and silent, with bikes flying along in places you might not expect to find them (i.e. when parked on an uphill). So you’ll need to watch for them.

Anyway, on to the specific issue of dooring. Dooring, if you don’t already know, is when a car door is opened directly into the path of a bicyclist, causing them to crash or swerve. It happens far more frequently than you think, being responsible for something like 15 per cent of cycling collisions.

Part of the problem is that bike lanes usually run right beside a lane of parked cars, meaning that a cyclist is basically running a gauntlet the entire time. The lanes are wide where Mr. McIntosh was killed, but not so wide as to prevent the chain reaction crash that killed him.

Ideally, bikes wouldn’t be anywhere near cars. This is usually the sort of statement that gets people all riled up over how to spend our infrastructure dollars, but if cost were no object, you’d have dedicated paths for cyclists, and one for cars, and never the twain should meet.

However, we’ve got to live with the infrastructure we’ve got. Perhaps the solution lies with the car manufacturers. Certainly blind-spot monitoring has made our roads a little safer in spite of ourselves.

The good news here is that anti-dooring technology already exists. The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe comes with a system that prevents the rear passengers from opening the doors if it detects approaching traffic. The general idea is to keep over-enthusiastic kids from leaping out into traffic, but it also works to protect approaching cyclists.

However, it doesn’t yet give the warning for the driver’s door. But there’s a simple solution to that as well.

It’s called the Dutch Reach, and it requires no technology at all. Developed in the bike-crazy Netherlands, the process works like this. Instead of opening your inside handle with your left hand, reach across and do it with your right instead.

Unconsciously, your body will turn and look over your shoulder, giving you a double-check before you open your door. It might help you spot that approaching cyclist.

Cyclists can also protect themselves a bit by taking their full lane, and watching for pinch points. There’s also a push to have the small fine for dooring – $81 – increased to be a greater deterrent.

Really though, all the discussion over what to do about dooring comes down to the same issue. It’s the classic case of rights vs. responsibilities on the road.

I’ve used the word “cyclist” throughout here, but there’s really no such thing. There are merely people on bikes, and people in cars, trying to best make their way to work or play. While we frequently degenerate into arguments about our right to get where we’re going without being impeded by others, the truth is that it’s our responsibility as adults to make sure every other road user gets there safely.

And sure, you’ll see examples of cyclists doing silly and dangerous things out there on the road. Just as, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see drivers being complete morons. Is everybody else out there an idiot, except for you?

It can certainly feel that way. It can sometimes feel like you’re the only grownup behind the wheel or on the pedals. Yet the thing to do here is not get complacent. As drivers, we shoulder a lot of responsibility every time we climb into – and out of – our cars. There’s a lot of freedom behind the wheel, but also big consequences for not taking that responsibility seriously.

So check twice over your shoulder. No cyclist wants to get doored. No driver wants to door a cyclist. No person wants to accidentally hurt another.

- Brendan McAleer, North Shore News