The “Dutch Reach”

I have sent the following message to Dr. Michael Charney, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, promoter of the “Dutch Reach”. The “Dutch Reach” is motorists’ opening the drive’s side door with the opposite hand, so they must look back for bicyclists riding within range of an opening car door.

Dr. Charney —

Have you studied the literature of bicycle crash causation and prevention, see for example Paul Schimek’s study of Boston bicycle crashes — or had any instruction in best practices for safe cycling,  for example through the CyclingSavvy program or the League of American Bicyclists Smart cycling program?

Sure, the Dutch Reach will prevent doorings as long as the motorist remembers to use it.

It probably works reasonably well in the Netherlands, where bicyclists have great political influence, where enforcement against motorists is draconian and where bicyclists’ squeezing through tight spaces is unavoidable on crowded, narrow streets that date back to medieval times.

Promotion of the Dutch Reach at least acknowledges that bicyclists riding at normal speeds are unable to stop in time to avoid an opening car door, as hasn’t been universally acknowledged in advice given to bicyclists.

Car doors aren’t the only problem with riding close to parked cars. There are also ride-outs, drive-outs, merge-outs and walk-outs, all of which, as well as dooring, are avoidable by riding far enough from parked vehicles to see, be seen, and have maneuvering room. Every motorist who gets out of the car on the street side is also going to walk out around the front or back of it to get back in, and merge out to drive away. The resulting risks are avoidable only by riding outside the door zone, or if in it, very slowly and cautiously.

Bicyclists who are in a position to be doored also are often overtaking on the right, subjecting themselves to risks of right-hook and left-cross collisions. The “Dutch reach” addresses only dooring.

Promoting the Dutch Reach as if it would make door-zone bicycling safe promotes the false belief that most car-bike crashes on urban streets are overtaking crashes. In fact, these are rare. Bicyclists still have the other problems which result from edge-riding, and become uneasy. These bicyclists’ beliefs either trap them in the door zone or lead them to quit bicycling.

Bicyclists who rely on the Dutch Reach are defining themselves as helpless victims, expecting the same motorists they fear to take all of the responsibility for their safety. Self-definition as a victim prevents bicyclists from understanding that they can take actions to improve their own safety.

Promoting the Dutch Reach perpetuates the idea that bicyclists are second-class citizens, motorists have a superior right to use the road, and promotes the construction of door-zone bicycle lanes which codify that belief.

Most media outlets cover the Dutch Reach — as is usual with bicycling issues — out of context. Once again, as with helmets, bike lanes, etc. etc., a single measure, which has benefits and also which can fail, is described as if it is a be-all-and end-all and draws attention away from what could be a comprehensive and reasoned approach to bicyclists’ mobility and safety.

Would you as an MD advise your patients to come in for a yearly doctor visit and dismiss things they can do for themselves: healthy diet, avoiding smoking, exercise, monitoring for symptoms of serious disease? Would you ignore research which shows the importance of these practices? No, but you are promoting a single practice which can address only one of many safety issues facing bicyclists, and whose promotion unfortunately reinforces common misconceptions and distracts from comprehensive solutions.

Thank you for your attention.

4 responses to “The “Dutch Reach”

  1. Dear John Allen,

    Thank you very much for examining and offering your informed opinion on the merit, questionable or otherwise, of attempting to alter driver and passenger door opening behavior for the benefit of public safety both for exiting occupants and on-coming traffic, cyclists in particular.

    Addressing yours points:

    1. “Sure, the Dutch Reach will prevent doorings as long as the motorist remembers to use it.”

    A. Yes of course, and the effort to achieve behavior change is formidable, though not impossible. In our life times we have seen smoking rates in the US cut in half; seat belt buckling increase dramatically from the time there were no seat belts as standard equipment; helmet use introduced and made popular; right on red introduced; and more people now sneeze into the crook of their arm and wash hands more during flu season, etc. So the challenge is clear, certainly up-hill, but not entirely quixotic.

    2. “Bicyclists who rely on the Dutch Reach are defining themselves as helpless victims, expecting the same motorists they fear to take all of the responsibility for their safety.”

    A. I would say “Bicyclists who rely on the DR are deeply misguided or extremely foolish to ever rely on drivers to use the Dutch Reach, and must therefore cycle defensively in the presence of parked or stopped vehicles.” On my project’s website I address this point directly with a disclaimer of trust. See: Dooring Self Defense for Cyclists at: http://www.dutchreach.org/dooring-defense-for-cyclists2-2-2-2-2/

    I welcome your comments and suggestions to improve this section and readily acknowledge your expertise in street smart cycling – and cite your guide specifically therein.

    2b. “Promoting the Dutch Reach perpetuates the idea that bicyclists are second-class citizens, motorists have a superior right to use the road, and promotes the construction of door-zone bicycle lanes which codify that belief.”

    A. Promoting the DR promotes safety in specific instances. Personally I do not see a connection between telling drivers and passengers to swap one thoughtless habit for a safer one should be read as telling motors they are superior, cyclists are inferior, or that public officials should construct bike lanes.

    Cyclists are vulnerable road users for reasons that are self-evident, which is why we all work to promote safer road conditions for all. Decisions made by government planning departments re: creation of bike lanes, is subject to political pressure largely independent of teaching drivers and passengers how to protect themselves and spare harm to others.

    3. ” Self-definition as a victim prevents bicyclists from understanding that they can take actions to improve their own safety.”

    A. I cannot agree with you more. But do not see the connection to teaching drivers and passengers — my target audience – as significantly affecting cyclists’ self-definition. Cyclist empowerment is absolutely important, and the Dutch Reach Project calls upon cyclists to use advocacy and outreach to change driver, passenger and official norms to improve our own chances for survival.

    4a. “Promoting the Dutch Reach as if it would make door-zone bicycling safe…”

    A: I promote the DR because when used it does make us all safer – cyclists who err into or are forced into the death/door zone, and occupants who might heedlessly exit into on-coming traffic. As you note in 1 above, when and where it is used, it can prevent harm, as in NL.

    4b. “…promotes the false belief that most car-bike crashes on urban streets are overtaking crashes.”

    A. I am not sure where found this truly false claim anywhere on my website or in public interviews given by me. Please kindly provide your citation and should such a statement exist in my name, I will correct it forthwith with gratitude.

    5. “In fact, these are rare. Bicyclists still have the other problems which result from edge-riding, and become uneasy. These bicyclists’ beliefs either trap them in the door zone or lead them to quit bicycling.”

    A. No disagreement whatsoever.

    6. “Most media outlets cover the Dutch Reach — as is usual with bicycling issues — out of context. Once again, as with helmets, bike lanes, etc. etc., a single measure, which has benefits and also which can fail, is described as if it is a be-all-and end-all and draws attention away from what could be a comprehensive and reasoned approach to bicyclists’ mobility and safety.”

    A. Again, I fully agree. Would that the scribbling class knew and wrote better however ain’t gonna happen. Any serious campaign to change dominant behavior must engage the media as it is, and try to work with it the best one can, if only to plant initial seeds of awareness, later to be fertilized and watered otherwise.

    The Dutch Reach has in the past 5 months seeded the idea into the minds of perhaps 2 M people worldwide. I can document 1.3 M of those from just the Outside Online video alone. That the UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (sic) has endorsed the method in an advisory to drivers and passengers will help water and fertilize future opportunities for institutionalized educational efforts and policy advances for licensing requirements.

    7. “Would you as an MD advise your patients to come in for a yearly doctor visit and dismiss things they can do for themselves: healthy diet, avoiding smoking, exercise, monitoring for symptoms of serious disease? Would you ignore research which shows the importance of these practices? No.”

    A. Indeed, will I stop beating my wife? Let us dispense with rhetoric and address the issue itself:

    8. “No, but you are promoting a single practice which can address only one of many safety issues facing bicyclists, and whose promotion unfortunately reinforces common misconceptions and distracts from comprehensive solutions.”

    A. Let us see where we agree: Yes I am deliberately addressing a specific problem with a quite partial solution which will only bear safety fruit in direct proportion to the extent to which drivers and passengers ingrain this alternative habit.

    We disagree over your claim that this endeavor – or perhaps any endeavor which is not comprehensive – (and comprehensive of what I am not sure: all cycling hazards? right hooks, left cross? doorings only? potholes?) – that this endeavor fails and should not be pursued because it is the enemy of the perfect?

    Much as your own writing – with the clear eye of an engineer – addresses scores of discrete particular issues. So does this effort address a narrow issue with a particular contribution to its solution. If I or anyone is willing to dedicate their time and effort to a simple, obvious, relatively cost free improvement in road sharing practice, how does that constitute medical malpractice?

    One need not be a physician to find value in stop gap measures. I would recommend mouth to mouth and manual resuscitation if a ventilator bag and electroshock paddles were not available. The Dutch Reach habit swap fills a gap in current efforts to address avoidable dooring and exiting related calamities. It is not an excuse or reason to abandon other practical measures to do the same, whether they be ‘comprehensive’ or ideologically sound, expensive or time consuming, or just as free, easy or difficult as teaching old and young dogs new tricks. They just have to save lives and limbs from doorings.

    If you have something specific to recommend today to prevent a dooring tomorrow please get to it! Or please lay out your program and explain how you plan to effect it…as I do below in #9. Then let us compare and contrast your proposal with the Dutch Reach Project.

    Fair?

    I applaud, and will continue to applaud all your efforts to assure cyclists first class status on the roadways, to equip and empower themselves with all which is needed to get from A to B alive. I welcome your challenges to this intervention, but I believe the counter-arguments posed in the above critique are off the mark.

    9. Here is the program for the Dutch Reach Project:

    i. A specific arbitrary flawed practice is to be replaced with a safer habit across a target population.

    ii. A grassroots campaign is designed to seed awareness across relevant vector and target populations (cyclists & road safety individuals, organizations, educators, advocates, professionals & officials etc. as vectors; general motoring public and selected subsections as targets.)

    iii. Organizing agents are to develop resources and methodologies to empower vectors to utilize, replicate, improve and spread the grassroots educational, outreach & advocacy campaign, its tactics, resources and strategies.

    iv. The campaign/project seeks to be open source, horizontal, relatively low budget or costless beyond staff and volunteer time commitments.

    v. Shall have the potential to revise the “community standard” top down and bottom up, from childhood to drivers education to licensing, licensing recertification, public re-education and possibly required driver continuing education requirements.

    vi. Beyond its potential to become a performance requirement for driver licensing road tests (as in NL), should it become a “community standard” may have further productive ramifications: insurance company programs which retrain drivers; strengthening of civil liability tort claims of driver/passenger/corporate negligence in future plaintiff lawsuits for damages, with consequent heightened media awareness due to higher damage awards, trial publicity etc.

    Thus even though police enforcement of far hand reach behavior is nearly impossible to conceive, civil damages, increased insurance points etc. could have quasi-enforcement potential and reinforce social pressure for greater driver/passenger vigilance, with a spill over to accord cyclists greater regard and concern not to endanger them.

    I look forward to reading your counter proposal. I will be pleased to respond and will reference & link our dialogue on the Dutch Reach website.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond. I look forward to your counter response.

    PS: 10. In addition to the above blog post, JSA sent me a subsequent criticism by a colleague alleging that the Dutch Reach Project was “an administrative fix”. Please post his full comment on your blog that I might respond appropriately. But my framing above I believe clarifies that your colleague’s claim fails in that the DR / DRP is not an administrative fix but relies on a diverse array of actors to promote a voluntary behavior change in the community of motor vehicle users.

    • Thank you for your response. I appreciate your engaging in dialogue. I’ve been very busy and so I am postponing reponding in full.

      Here are the comments about the adminstrative fix which you asked for. As I haven’t asked for permission, I’m not giving the name of the person who made them, though he may allow that, and then I’ll do that.

      The problem is that the Dutch Reach is trying to ameliorate an intrinsically hazardous situation with an administrative fix, i.e., using one’s cross-hand to open a door while bicyclists are riding alongside cars.

      In my sixteen years of having worked in a facility that handles hefty quantities of radioactive nuclear material, one thing we learn is that it is a bad idea to accept an intrinsically dangerous practice and try to mitigate it using an administrative solution alone. People intrinsically fail. In our world, that is the basis of Vision Zero–that people fail and its the job of the traffic professionals to not create high-consequence, failure prone situations.

      Even more of a concern for failure rates if one doesn’t have the ability to ensure that all of those who need to use the rule are all taught it, ensure they sign off on having received and understand the training, that they receive refresher training at reasonable intervals, and that there are consequences to not using it.

      So I see this as a poor substitute for getting cyclists out of door zones to begin with.

  2. The other thing about the Dutch Reach is that…

    It doesn’t work!

    Get in your car car and try it. If you reach over for the door handle what you get is a good view of the door pillar. From inside the car with the window closed you simply cannot see the space where door-zone cyclists are approaching from – you only get this view from the mirror. What is worse is that the maker of the video must be fully aware of this. Look at the video (at about 1:07). First we see the driver turn and you can see him staring at the door pillar. Then we see the driver’s eye view – initially a view of the door pillar plus a view straight out sideways. Then magically the cyclist comes into view at 1:08 – but only because the camera has been pushed out through the open window. Look at where the driver holds the door to shut it!

    To see approaching cyclists behind and close to the side of the car you really need to use the mirror – and that should be adjusted to give the best view from the normal driving position.

    I can see the point that the Dutch Reach could be useful for passengers getting out on to the sidewalk avoiding opening the door directly into a pedestrian, but as a way of avoiding approaching cyclists it is utterly useless. The only sure fire way to avoid getting doored is in our own hands – don’t ride in the door-zone: simple. Any campaigning efforts should be directed at persuading the authorities to remove daft cycle lanes that direct cyclists into the most dangerous position.

    • Pete, you’re right! I tried it like you said. All I got was a sore neck and a poor view.

      At best, I could maybe glimpse a narrow sliver through the passenger window. But I could see a whole lot more in the mirror.

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