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Open Door Policy

Why parked cars can be a bicyclist's greatest adversary

By Novella Carpenter

I've 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 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 (a) getting on a bicycle is like wearing a magic ring that renders the rider completely invisible; and (b) 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 that 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 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 miles per hour.

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. 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 his butt, and the next thing I knew, I saw a flash and my bike was 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 an early death 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 was. I explained that he should look behind the car in his mirror to see if anyone's coming before opening the door and that he should then check again for fast riders. We parted on good terms, having both learned a lesson.

But later I thought about the problem some more and decided that the best thing 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. E-mail Rev at [email protected].

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From the January 18-24, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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