Perception of Doors
By Dana Lacey
dandyhorse magazine, Spring 2009 issue
Puns are painful at the best of times. In bikespeak, “door prize” is the sugar-coated name we give to our city’s most prevalent and preventable cause of cyclist injury: a carelessly-opened car door.
Andrew Hind felt the full impact of the pun a few weeks ago while biking on Bloor Street, near Dundas West. He received the prize when a door suddenly opened in his path. He wasn’t badly hurt, so his thoughts swung immediately to his banged-up ride. He told the passenger off: “You broke my fucking bike!”
“Yeah,” the passenger snapped back, “and you scratched my door.”
Hind is hardly alone. Errant car doors have been knocking cyclists down all over the city for years. They’ve suffered injuries of all shapes and sizes: from road rash to death. Essentially, every time you hop on a bike you are agreeing to risk life and limb. It’s an uneasy contract, considering the consequences. Occasionally the bicyclist hits the soft, impact-cushioning flesh of the person exiting their car. Not everyone is so lucky.
In 2003 the City reported 276 doorings in their Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Collision Report, making the “door prize” downtown Toronto’s most common accident. It’s also the most likely to cause injury, and those injuries are generally “more severe than average.” The culprit: busy east-west arterial roads which force bicyclists to share the road with fast moving traffic, streetcar tracks and rapid parking turnover. Think Dundas, Queen, Bloor and College Streets. A 1999 report revealed the same thing, yet there is still no safe route across the city. Bike safety advocates often lobby for more bike lanes, but can that solve the door prize issue?
First, the math. Based on my own research (30 vehicles of different sizes, a measuring tape and a lookout person) the average car door is just over a metre wide. Let’s assume they know how to parallel park and stay on their side of the line. The average bike lane is 1.5-metres wide: an open door commands a significant chunk of that space. Throw in variables like the odd oversized all-terrain vehicle or two-door sedan. Don’t forgot to add the size of your bike–handlebars range from 40 centimetres for a racer to over half a metre on a cruiser. On streets lined with parked cars, common sense says cyclists should treat the bike lane not as a path to follow, but as a zone to avoid. There’s simply not enough room. The ideal route would have no on-street parking at all, but that’s a battle fought block by block with stubborn merchants and residents. Even without parked cars, cyclists have to be wary of passengers jumping out of vehicles idling in traffic, like what happened to Andrew Hind, and countless others.
While writing this story, I asked a lot of cyclists if they’d ever won the prize. Almost everyone could remember close calls and last-minute swerves. One woman was doored on Spadina and sported nasty bruises for weeks. The person who hit her didn’t see what the big deal was, slapping her on the back with a “buck up, you’re fine” attitude. There was no apology. Another man broke his collarbone and couldn’t work for months. (On the other hand, one guy was doored by a woman who subsequently treated him to a guilt brunch.)
Then there’s Hannah Evans, who got a concussion on Queen St. when she was doored. Most people I spoke with didn’t bother with legal action, but she took the City itself to small claims court. It wasn’t easy, she says. “At times I thought it would never end.” Lawyers Tim Gleason and Sean Dewart of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP donated two years of their time to the case. They successfully argued that the City of Toronto, while encouraging cycling, had failed to provide safe biking infrastructure. If a road’s primary purpose is to support the movement of traffic, then a bicycle has more right to be there then a parked car. Various bike lanes dump cyclists onto Queen St., a traffic nightmare. There isn’t much room for error if something goes wrong. The clincher was that the city knew these conditions existed, but had done nothing to address them. In 2004 the judge awarded $4,500 in damages to Evans and named the City 25% liable for the accident (50% went to the driver, and 25% to Evans for not wearing a helmet.) The ruling is the first time the City has been found negligent for the design of its roadway.
In his statement, the judge wrote “[On Queen St.] the use of bicycles has multiplied over the years, as has the use of cars and trucks. Motor vehicles have become larger.” He recommended removing parked cars to reduce the number of accidents. “Sure, a skilled cyclist can pass in safety, but the roads should be safe for the ordinary cyclist,” he wrote. This ruling sets the stage for future cases against the city involving injuries or deaths on these roads, Gleason explains. The city is now officially “aware” of the dangerous conditions that persist on “virtually every east-west corridor in the downtown core.” Thanks to the Evans case, you may have a case against the City if you’re doored on a major east-west road. But Gleason cautions that this is only worthwhile if you or your bike were significantly hurt, or you have someone willing to finance a lawsuit (such as an advocacy group).
MP Olivia Chow, who bears scars from two different prizes, urges everyone to follow up with legal action. “The driver needs to learn a lesson,” she says, “the first time I was doored I didn’t lay charges. That driver might still be out there opening doors on people.” But Gleason admits the laws are not stacked in cyclists’ favour. While it is illegal to open a car door into traffic, Ontarians are subject to the the Insurance Act and its no-fault, no-suit provisions. “These are particularly unfair to cyclists in my view,” Gleason says. No-fault insurance protects the insured from losses and lawsuits, no matter who is to blame for the accident. You can sue for pain and suffering and economic loss, but again, it’s only worth pursuing for serious injuries: the first two weeks off work is considered a deductible. “Cyclists are essentially forced to sacrifice their bodies and their safety in order to keep insurance premiums low for drivers,” Gleason points out (he too has won the infamous prize). “Many cyclists don’t own cars, so this benefit is entirely paid by them and enjoyed by car drivers.”
If you do decide to pursue legal action, be prepared to be dedicated for the long haul. I’m still swimming through the legal aftermath of an accident I had while biking in Vancouver last July. It wasn’t a door prize, but it was a door that took me down. Biking south down a steep hill, my path was suddenly blocked by a car passing East through an intersection. Several seconds felt like an eternity, and I’ve replayed the scene a million times: I brake hard, and so does the driver. I hit the driver’s door shoulder first, and feel the sickening crunch of bone hitting metal. That was the sound of my collarbone shattering into three pieces. My bike crushes my leg, and I crumple to the ground. I can’t get up. People who’ve heard the squeal of brakes came out of their houses. Someone gives me a blanket and a juice box. Sirens approach. All the time, a voice in my head softly repeats “ohshitohshitohshit.” After so many years of cycling, I’d crashed plenty of times. But I’d never been hurt this bad. I was scared, and in shock. I keep asking if my bike was okay. Much later, I’d learn that its injuries were too severe for rehabilitation. My beloved Trek was reduced to scrap metal and spare parts.
I still bike everywhere, but it took months for the rapid thud of my heartbeat to calm enough to let me enjoy it again. I’m still more nervous than I ever was. A thick rope of scar tissue lays along my collarbone. Push gently, and you can feel the metal rod that the surgeon screwed into the bone. The doctors dosed me with some heavy meds (and I’ll take this opportunity to apologize to my friends for any opiate behaviour). Turns out a broken collarbone is one of the most painful injuries to manage. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t dress or feed myself. I had to ask a friend to bathe me. I couldn’t work for four months, which cost me my job. I couldn’t lift anything or open doors. I became terrified of hugs. And, thanks to no-fault insurance provisions, it’s entirely possibly that I’ll receive no compensation at all. The insurance company is currently deciding the outcome of my case, based on witness statements, the police report and their own investigation. In the end, liability will be assigned to me or the driver (or we will both be found partially liable, like in Evan’s case). If I am found partially liable for the accident, I may have to pay the driver his $500 insurance deductible. To fight it, I’ll have to hire a lawyer–but they don’t come cheap, and it could be years before I see results. Any sane person has gotta wonder: Is this worth it?
Then there’s the woman who killed the cyclist on Eglinton Avenue last May. She was charged under the Highway Traffic Act: “Open Vehicle Door Improperly.” If convicted, she’ll have to pay a $110 fine: the same price a cyclist pays when caught without a bell. The charge was seen as a slap on the wrist, and ignited debate about liability and punishment. Many felt that the driver should get a harsher penalty, as a deterrent to others. One comment left on a National Post story online read, “The headline ‘Toronto cyclist killed by open car door’ is entirely inaccurate. The cyclist was killed by the motorist. The door was the weapon.” Not everyone agrees, of course. With no criminal intent, you can’t charge her with murder, and the $1,000-dollar “Careless Driving” charge doesn’t apply to vehicles that are stationary (although maybe it should).
Derek Chadbourne, former courier and owner of Toronto’s The Bike Joint says, “The fault lies with the driver. Too many times I’ve heard people say ‘I didn’t see them’, which is bullshit. You shouldn’t be driving if you can’t see.” Even at a slow speed, you only have seconds to react. In the heart of the city, there’s not much room to maneuver when you’re suddenly faced with an impenetrable wall. Even the most experienced cyclists have won the prize, Chadbourne included. His analogy is simple: “If you murder someone with a gun, you go to jail. Murder someone with your car, and suddenly it’s an accident.”
He has a point. Nobody ever MEANS to take down a cyclist. Ashley Dixon certainly didn’t. One night, at the end of a cab ride along College St., the driver urged Dixon to get out without properly pulling over. Flustered, she grabbed her bags and quickly opened her door–right into a cyclist. “I didn’t look at all,” she admits, “I couldn’t believe I did that.” Dixon is an avid cyclist and door prize veteran: she knows to look, she simply forgot. The cyclist stayed on the ground in shock for a few agonizing minutes, and the cops were called. He wasn’t badly hurt, but the police investigation took several hours and nobody could leave until it was done. A sort of uneasy friendship formed between the trio while they waited, which only made Dixon feel worse. In the end, no one was charged, but that doesn’t matter: Dixon knows she’ll never make that mistake again. “It was the most horrible experience of my life.”
Careless taxi passengers are common culprits. We already know there’s no cure for human error, and drivers will continue to make mistakes. Chadbourne fought to get the City to recognize the issue and raise awareness amongst drivers. He was part of the force behind the City’s “Watch for Bikes” campaign, in partnership with the CAA. It was a battle to convince the City to get on board, he says. Finally, in 1998 the city created a taxi by-law that cabs must have “Watch for Bikes” stickers on both the driver’s side mirror and each rear passenger mirror. In 2005, another campaign handed out 150,000 small, square “Watch for Bikes” stickers to the general public. They’re a far cry from Chadbourne’s original designs, which were larger, multilingual and more reliant on pictures than words. (Unfortunately, there was no sticker in Dixon’s cab.)
All a cyclist can do is anticipate the worst and hope they can react quickly enough to stay scar-free. The first time I won the door prize, it was during the slick-and-slushy stage of winter. I was cruising along Dundas Street, trying to navigate black ice, pot holes and the jaywalking dinner crowd. A delivery truck was parked in my path, and I quickly checked my blind spot so I could merge into the left land and pass safely. I turned forward just in time to see the truck’s heavy metal door swing open. I swerved, lost my balance and slid across the ice, hitting the door bike-first. I stood up slowly and assessed the damage: a few bruises, and a burst tire. I’d have to walk home, but I’d be fine in a couple days. I guess I could have called the cops, but I just wanted to get home. The driver looked at me impatiently. I gave him the finger and limped away.
As for Andrew Hind, he found that the passenger who hit him quickly changed his tune once he reached for his cell phone. “He kept saying, ‘Come on, let’s do this ourselves, no need to call the cops,’ ” Hind says. He called them anyway. They waited ages for the police to arrive, and endured another three hours of investigation, where police measured the scene, questioned everyone and took down official statements. The passenger was charged $110 for improperly opening his door. If he decides to fight the charge, Hind will be subpoenaed to court. If Hind doesn’t show up, the passenger doesn’t have to pay. “Oh I’ll show up,” he says, “even if it’s just a small amount, it’s my justice.”