Cyclists vs. car doors: How the ‘Dutch reach’ could help

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Cyclist vs. car door. In the bike-friendly city of Chicago, the number of wheels on the road are up but that means the injuries are rolling in.

There are 248 miles of bike lanes painted on the pavement of Chicago streets, thanks to Mayor Richard Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Some are quiet, others are crowded with trucks and cars. The lanes are designed to offer those navigating the city on two wheels safe passage. Unless a door suddenly opens in their path.

Just about every employee at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square has been “doored.” A person opens their door into the cyclist and they are stopped in their tracks by the sudden impact.

For shop owner Kevin Womac, who uses a bicycle 95 percent of the time to get around, it was a minivan that took him out.

“You think you are prepared for it, but it happens in an instant,” he said. “I smashed my hand. Caught the door in the nook of my neck. It could be a lot worse.”

It was worse for Adrian Redd who said, “I totally did the typical flipped over the door. I scrapped up my whole lip and chin. Luckily, my helmet saved my head.”

The seasoned cyclists have learned how to coast through the city safely.

“As a cyclist, you sort of learn to look into the windows of a car to see if somebody is getting out,” Womac said. “I typically ride along the white stripe. If you plant yourself in the middle of that bike lane, you’ll be doored by any door that pops open. It’s quite surprising.”

And painful.

At Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, Dr. John Fernandez has treated dozens of patients with dooring injuries, ranging from minor scraps to multiple breaks.

“You’re going from speed, depending how fast the bike is traveling, let’s say 20 to 30 mph, to literally zero, right?” he said. “And so those are the most severe injuries, and those can range from fatalities to significant closed head injuries, cervical spine injuries, but then also in my case, severe upper extremity injuries, severe fractures and dislocations.”

A recent case showed a dislocated and fractured wrist that required surgery and multiple pins and screws to reset the broken bones.

“You can see that this bone is almost sticking up through the skin, and basically the hand is dislocated backwards,”  Fernandez said. “It’s a pretty grotesque injury. This was literally about a year and a half worth of treatment in terms of post-operative recovery.”

Across town, attorney Brendan Kevenides devotes much of his practice to bike crashes. Right now he and his associates have 200 cases in the works and 30 of those involve dooring accidents.

“Dooring cases are probably the most common type of bike crash we see,” he said.

An accident that happened on Milwaukee Avenue last year involved a 60-year-old bicyclist

“(He) was riding northbound on Milwaukee Avenue. This car door just opens in front of him. He suffered a head injury, laceration of his face,” Kevenides said. “It could have been a whole lot worse for him.”

But the driver who opened the door was not ticketed.

“The law is very clear both statewide and here in the city about requiring motorists to look before opening their doors,” Kevenides said. “So, if the motorist opens their door, hits a cyclist, they are going to be liable.”

That’s why Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner wants Illinois drivers to learn a maneuver called “the Dutch reach.” Drivers and passengers reach across their own body to open the car door and naturally twisting their torso to catch a view of approaching bikers.

“We’re evolving as a cycling city. More people are using it,” Kevenides said. “More people are seeing the benefits of biking everywhere. But at the same time we have a long way to go because there’s just too much injury and too many deaths caused by careless motorists.”

“Often, we are busy,” Fernandez said. “We are on our phone and we open the door without thinking. We have to be more aware, we have to be more kind and think of the people that might be on the other side of that door when we are opening it.”

Beginning Jan. 1, 2019, the “Dutch reach” will be taught in driver’s ed.

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