You’ve just parked your car. It’s time to open the door and get out. Which hand do you use to reach for the handle?
It may sound like a trick question — most Americans have used the hand closest to the door, and only that hand, since they could first open the door for themselves. But in January, driving instructors around the country will be teaching the opposite, a method borrowed from the Netherlands and often called the “Dutch Reach” or the “far-hand technique.”
In the Netherlands, you exit a car with the hand farthest from the door (the right hand if driving). This initiates a modest twist, causing you to look in the direction of your car’s blind spot. Most importantly: you’ll see if there’s a cyclist rapidly heading your way.
It may seem like a small thing, but people on bikes have died from “doorings” when motorists haven’t looked before opening the door.
Many large U.S. cities have signed on to Vision Zero and aim to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries. But accident rates have remained stubbornly high throughout the nation.
According to the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration, 783 cyclists died in the US in traffic crashes with passenger vehicles in 2017. That is a decrease from 2016, which had the most deaths ever recorded at 852.
The NHSTA doesn’t count doorings, but a 2015 Vancouver study found them to be the most common type of bike crash there, accounting for 15 percent of all incidents. According to the English nonprofit Cycling UK, eight bicyclists died from doorings in the United Kingdom between 2011 and 2015.
Opening your car door without looking is not just a danger to bikers says Peter Furth, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Northeastern University. “If you open your door without looking, you can lose a door,” says Furth. “And you can lose your life.”
For inspiration in preventing these crashes, some Americans are looking to the Netherlands, where there are a lot more bikers and the roads are a lot safer. The Dutch have about a third as many traffic fatalities per capita as in the United States. Bikes are used for a quarter of all trips in the Netherlands, more than anywhere else in the world.
One of the people paying attention was Michael Charney, a retired physician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who sought solutions online after a dooring accident near his house killed a person biking. Charney popularized the name, the “Dutch Reach” and has evangelized for its adoption.
Last year, at Charney’s urging, Massachusetts added it to their driver’s manual, followed by Illinois this April. Starting in January, both AAA and the National Safety Council, providers of driving instruction to millions of Americans each year, will both add the technique to their curriculums.
The simplicity of the technique has contributed to its appeal, says Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council.
“When I first heard of it, I thought, ‘this is genius,’” says Epstein. “This is an easy, free way to remind yourself, as the driver, to be mindful on exiting the vehicle.”
But in the Netherlands, there is no name for the “Dutch Reach” at all. It is not a technique, says Fred Wegman, professor emeritus of traffic safety at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The driving exam does include demonstrating turning and looking for bikers. But learning to turn is part of a broader education about traffic safety that begins when children are 10 to 12 years old.
Wegman says, “At the age of nine, 10, these kids are inclined to go on their bike on their own. Because there is no school bus system, children learn traffic safety so they can commute to school unaccompanied by adults.
“They have one year in the curriculum, public education, with a focus on biking,” Wegman says. “They have theoretical and practical education. There’s some sort of highway code in the theoretical part, and also an exercise on the road.”
The program culminates with children earning a “bicycle diploma.” Later, private driving school in the Netherlands continues that education for teenagers, rather than in the United States where learning to drive is often the one and only time a person learns the rules of the road.
Besides education, the Netherlands is light years ahead of the United States in building its bike network. A good way to prevent cars and bikes from hitting each other — including doorings — is to physically move them apart.
The Netherlands has over 22,000 miles of protected bike lanes separate from car traffic called cycle tracks. They have also dramatically reduced passenger vehicle speed in urban areas. Study after study has shown that these measures make streets safer.
These changes did not happen overnight. Beginning in the 1970s, when the Netherlands had an oil crisis similar to the one in the US, the nation began to prioritize safety and to heavily invest in the future of biking. Now generations of Hollanders have earned their bicycle diplomas and much of the country is connected by cycle tracks. Wegman’s daughters learned to use their far hand in school just as he did several decades ago.
The question for American cycling advocates and safety experts is whether the Dutch Reach can have an impact on safety by itself without the accompanying Dutch education and Dutch infrastructure.
Furth, the professor in Boston, isn’t sure. He thinks that the Dutch Reach can help, but that education is not as effective as infrastructure when it comes to increasing safety.
“Infrastructure is nuts and bolts. It costs money. It uses road space. And everybody is trying to find a way to solve this problem without biting the bullet,” Furth says.
But American traffic education and bicycling infrastructure may be changing too, ever so slowly.
Even if it is just one small curriculum change, William Van Tassel, AAA manager of Driver Training Operations, believes that the far-hand technique — as AAA refers to it — fits in with a larger trend. According to Van Tassel, the technique signals a shift in focus for American driving instruction towards bicycles and pedestrians.
“The technique signals a shift in focus for American driving instruction towards bicycles and pedestrians.”
“We’ve increased our content regarding sharing the roads with cyclists and other vulnerable road users quite a bit,” Van Tassel says. “It could easily be something that grows as a mode of transportation as we move forward, so we’d like to stay ahead of that if we can.”
American roads are also evolving. Although U.S. cities have experimented with different kinds of protected bike lanes, many municipalities have been reluctant to deviate from the bike guide put out by AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The guide has never included cycle tracks like in the Netherlands, but a draft of the new edition, released in September, shows that change is likely. The updated AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities will likely be an influential resource for engineers and urban planners around the US.
But Furth notes that the changes, if approved, are long overdue and still far behind the manuals currently in use in the Netherlands.
“The Dutch have been recommending cycle tracks for their through roads since at least 1935, so this puts us at least 80-some years behind them,” Furth says.
New automotive technology, he says, may play a big part in preventing doorings and making the roads safer for bikers, pedestrians, and drivers.
“Cars we are starting to build now are smart,” Furth says. “I could have a car that when it’s locked, the mirror automatically bends in. People riding their bike would know — if it’s a bent-in mirror, you can ride right next to the door because the doors on that car are locked.”
For now, we have the Dutch Reach. It is still early, but traffic safety experts are hopeful and cautiously optimistic.
Alex Epstein, at the National Safety Council, says, “Getting people to do things in their own self-interest is not the easiest thing in the world sometimes, even if its a proven safety behavior, like not texting and driving or like the far reach.”
“Human nature is a funny thing,” he says.
Photo of a person biking in Amsterdam from Flickr’s Creative Commons.