The dangerous door zone

I know. The sign is lame but it's free of copyright hooha.

We all know the drill.  Keep left!  It’s the title of the first section of the Road Code’s Key Driving skills and the mantra of visitors from right-side driving countries.  Whether you’re cycling or driving, the New Zealand Land Transport (Road User) Rule requires that all drivers (and this includes cyclists) “must at all times drive as near as practicable to the left side of the roadway unless this rule otherwise provides.”  The trick for cyclists becomes what to do about those darn, unpredictable doors that pop open into our path?  If we ride as near as practicable to the left, we place ourselves in the door zone, aka the Danger Zone.  It may have been okay for Maverick, but it’s no place for the rest of us who prefer not to rash it up on the tarmac or fight Soviet bogies.  Indeed, the result of an opening door can be much worse than a simple spill from the bike.   In the case of 27-year old British nurse, Jane Mary Bishop, who swerved to avoid an opening door and was hit and killed by a truck traveling beside her, it meant absolute tragedy.

On Friday, it was reported that the driver who opened his door in Ms. Bishop’s path will contest the charge of careless use of a motor vehicle causing death.

So, what is the appropriate conduct for a cyclist passing parked cars if the cyclist is expected to keep “as near as practicable” to the left?  A review of the law and the Cycle Code with Cycling Advocates Network Project Manager (and cycle skills instructor) Patrick Morgan reinforces the important need for cyclists to take a safe position in the lane. The NZTA Cycling Code states:

Road rules state that road users should keep as ‘near as practicable’ to the left side of the roadway. This means that you should keep left, but not to the extent that it compromises your safety.

  • Ride in a position where you have a good view, and where other road users can see you. Cycling in a straight line (ie not swerving in and out) will help other road users predict your movements.
  • Never ride so closely to the kerb or edge of the road that you are in danger of cycling into the kerb or off the road.
  • Never ride in the ‘door zone’ (the space where car doors open) when cycling past parked cars. Allow at least one metre between you and a parked car.
  • If the road is too narrow to safely allow vehicles to pass, you are in danger of being run off the road or hit by a passing car. In this situation it is acceptable to move further out into the path of traffic to prevent other users from passing you. If you do have to move further out, remember to find a gap, signal your intentions and move across when it is safe. Once you have moved out try to ride as quickly as you can and allow the following traffic to pass when the road widens.

Patrick believes that the Cycling Code’s recommendation is in line with the law’s mandate.  He encourages riders to take the primary position, which means the center of the lane, thus ensuring that they’re safely out of the door zone.  The primary position is endorsed by worldwide cycle advocates, including John Franklin and John Forester, especially on narrow roads and in slow-moving traffic as it allows maximum space for quick reactions, high visibility and a smooth road surface.  The secondary position, or about 1 meter to the left of passing vehicles but no closer than .5 meters from kerb, is available to you when following vehicles need to see around you while planning to pass.  Although cyclists must be responsible for claiming the safest position on the road, maintaining the primary position often infuriates drivers.  Cyclists, like drivers, do have a responsibility to allow cars to pass when it is safe to do so.

Although the law requires us to keep left, exceptions and clarifications are clear in the law itself.  The presence of slow-moving traffic is inherent in the law’s drafting.  It’s understood that slower-moving traffic, when impeding the flow of traffic, must move to the left “when necessary to allow following traffic to pass” when it is reasonably practicable to do so.  Just as a slow-moving car would not be required to move out of the path of following traffic until it is safe to do so, a cyclist should never be required to place herself in harm’s way to permit cars to pass.  A reading of the law to the contrary would defy common sense and the objective of the law itself, which is, in part, “to promote the safe and efficient operation of roads.”

Finally, while riders must be wary of the danger of the door zone, drivers also must, by law, “not cause a hazard to any person by opening or closing a door of a motor vehicle, or by leaving the door of a motor vehicle open.”  Drivers must also refrain from parking their car “without due care or without reasonable consideration for other road users.”  (Oh, and it’s illegal to park in the bike lane.)  So, really, everyone shares the hefty responsibility to keep themselves and their fellow travelers safe.

Ride safely out there.  Avoid doors.  Be aware.  Be courteous but stake your space with confidence.  If you’re interested in attending or offering a cycle safety course, please check out CAN’s Bikeability Program.  Patrick also recommends “Cyclecraft” by John Franklin, available here.




5 thoughts on “The dangerous door zone

  1. Simon Kennett

    This is all good, timely advice – there has been a rash of car-door incidents lately – however, I do not follow it when riding home up Garden Road most days. If you are riding up a narrow, steep road slowly (at less than 10 kph) I think you are fairly safe to ride in the door zone (and to do otherwise during rush hour would result in a long queue of traffic behind you). Going uphill slowly, you can stop extremely quickly in the event a car door is carelessly opened. This is the exception to the rule, but I think it is worth mentioning.

    You can imagine what would happen to cyclist/motorist relations if all the cyclists riding up Adelaide/Hawker/Glenmore Road between 4 and 5pm took the lane – aggressive driving would sky rocket. Even the secondary position is not practical on a long, steep, narrow, windy road – better to ride 0.5m from a parked car than be overtaken with only a 0.5m gap on a 6m-wide road. Many riders choose the footpath when faced with this predicament (and WCC are looking into situations where that might be legitimised).

    Vehicular cycling works best on flat or downhill roads, especially if there are two lanes heading in your direction.


    1. atom

      @Simon – what you’re describing certainly does give you a shorter stopping distance, making you able to stop more quickly for doors that open in front of you. but what happens when (not if) a door opens into your front wheel? or handlebars? or your bike frame? or you? or your back wheel? just think about the physics involved, and the direction of forces. which way would your bike go? would you be able to maintain control of the bike or be knocked off? where would you land? what can you do to better your odds of not falling into moving traffic?

      that said, there are time when wellington roads put me there, too. in addition to the usual road hazards that i have to keep an eye on, i’m also looking for telltale signs of doors that might open, but that’s a suckers’ game best avoided: i don’t like this kind of surprise. often my front wheel is next to a door before i can see if there’s anyone in the car. i’d like to think that i can think fast enough to fall TOWARDS the parked car if something bad happens, but if a door opens into my frame or into me that might not be possible.

      i’m not familiar with the road you’re describing, but this is the type of situation where, personally, i’ll usually just slow down to a walking speed and “take the footpath” when one is available. when the law doesn’t allow me to do what’s safe and reasonable, i’ll do what’s safe and reasonable despite the law. ultimately, the law and the infrastructure has to be reflect reality; we’re not there yet in NZ.

      these are the types of roads that need to be on top of the list for getting rid of on-street parking, on the up-hill side, and installing proper bike lanes. or widening the footpaths and converting them to MUPs.


      1. Simon Kennett

        Hard to say how I would react if that happened. I might try and grab the door (if I was right next to it).
        If I had just passed the door and it hit my back wheel, I’d probably try to lay the bike over to the right and step over the handlebars (maintaining my body’s forward momentum).

        I used to play bike polo, bike soccer, bike jousting when I was in my late teens. Bike trials, MTBing and wharf jumping followed. When I was really young my brothers and I used to ride round the park throwing crab apples at each other – if you got hit you had to do a flying dismount and death-roll. Bicycle games are a good way of building up skills that come in handy when negotiating the concrete jungle.
        Note: It’s handy to have a $20 clunker with this kind of shenannigans.


      2. Simon Kennett

        Before anybody goes off to join the circus as a trick cyclist (in hope of gaining useful commuting skills) I should point out that what I think is most important when dicing with the door zone on a climb, is to keep your fingers over the brake levers, an eye on the cars, and practice holding a steady line (so a gust of wind doesn’t see you clipping a wing mirror).

        Of course, a bike commuting skills course is a great idea, too. There are a few good course providers in Wellington. A topic for another post, perhaps.


      3. Megan

        Simon! Although you paint a super cute picture of your crazy agility, I’m glad you acknowledged the somewhat easier skill of paying attention and being cautious! Not all of us had to avoid crab apple fire as kids but that shouldn’t prevent us from cruising safely through town, beside parked cars and on narrow roads.

        As an accident prone kind of gal, I’m a big believer in the slow roll when conditions call for it.


Your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s