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January 18-24, 2006

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Car Culture

Door, Meet Bicycle

It's pretty fun, really, to pretend to be invisible, and to entertain yourself by thinking, 'Hmmm, looks like that SUV soccer mom accidentally ate her son's pot brownies'

By Novella Carpenter

I HAVE sworn off coffee for 2006. No, really; this time I'm actually going to go through with it. I know, because I've reached the stage in my caffeine withdrawals where I tell everyone they too should give up the java. I've annoyed so many people, I couldn't possibly go back now.

I've also promised myself that I'll ride my bike more often. I've found that the only time I really have to drive is when I'm sick. Now what does that say about driving? It's for the elderly, disabled and sickly. Or when it's really rainy and/or I have to buy some bales of hay.

But along with biking comes danger, because a car will "win" every time in a bike-car collision. I find it useful, then, when interacting with cars to assume that (1) getting on a bicycle is like wearing a magic ring that renders the rider completely invisible and (2) every person behind the wheel of a car is drunk or high. It's pretty fun, really, to pretend to be invisible, and to entertain yourself by thinking, "Hmmm, looks like that Miata guy's on day five of a crystal-meth jag," or "SUV soccer mom accidentally ate her son's pot brownies—again!" Who said paranoia isn't fun?

My biggest fear is getting "doored," which means a parked car's door will open just as I'm riding by, knocking out all of my teeth and sending my body hurtling into oncoming traffic where my head will be squished like an overripe cantaloupe under the wheels of a semi, and the ambulance people will see I don't have on clean undies. So often do I worry about getting doored that I run my tongue over my teeth as I pass a series of cars.

Bicycle advocates like the League of American Bicyclists recommend the following precautions for not getting doored: Ride at least three feet from parked cars; never swerve between parked cars; always pass on the right. Other groups recommend leaving four or even five feet between car and bicyclist. The problem with that door-zone requirement is that if the bike lane isn't wide enough, the biker's only option is to ride with traffic. Even I hate a bicyclist way out there trying to do 35 mph.

The city of Chicago's bike-safety website suggests that bicyclists constantly monitor who is behind them with a mirror. That way, if a door swings open, the bicyclist will know whether it's safe to veer out of the way. Or, what I do now is slow way down, peer into the car to see if anyone's in there ready to come out and keep my hands over the brakes just in case I have to make a sudden stop.

Of course, the one time I did get doored, it didn't happen anything like I thought it would. I was on a sunny, tree-lined street with plenty of room and no traffic. A bicyclist passed by me, and I looked at their butt, and the next thing I know, I see a flash, and my bike is wobbling and a little out of my control, but not critically damaged. The guy had opened his door and hit my back basket, sending only some plants I bought from a nursery to their deaths on the pavement.

As I checked for injury to my person or bike, and mourned for my rosemary plant, the driver asked me what he could do to avoid this problem again. He seemed more upset than I. I explained that he should look behind the car in his mirror to see if anyone is coming before opening the door and that he should then check again for fast riders. We parted on good terms; we both had learned a lesson.

But later I thought about the problem some more and decided that the best thing to do would be for drivers to be more timid with their door opening. Why throw the thing open as if this is your grand entry at the gala ball? Why risk having a semi rip off your door? Why not open the door enough to simply squeeze out, and slip into the role of pedestrian with grace and agility?

I drive a beater, and yes! I ride a beater.

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.