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May 9, 2012

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These two ABC 24 presenters are embroiled in controversy after claiming on Monday morning that car “doorings” of cyclists aren’t always solely the driver’s fault – they reckon sometimes the cyclist is at fault too.

Many cyclists are outraged. The video even turned up on the popular international site Bike Snob NYC where it was eviscerated by the host. The ABC quickly took down the video and put up this sanitised version. Fortunately, the uncut and unexpurgated version was preserved by a public-spirited individual and is now on YouTube for all to see (see exhibit).

Doorings are when vehicle drivers or passengers open the door in the immediate path of a cyclist, resulting in a collision. There were 1,100 (reported) cases of doorings in Victoria between 2000 and 2010. They often result in severe injuries and in 2010 cyclist James Cross was killed in an incident involving a dooring. (More background on dooring here).

Greens MP Greg Barber currently has a bill before the Victorian Parliament to make it a summary offence to cause a hazard by opening a door of a vehicle. If passed the Bill will increase the maximum penalty from $366 to $1,220. A loss of three demerit points for drivers is also proposed.

In the video, Gary Brennan from Bicycle Network Victoria is asked by ABC reporter Simon Lauder (at 2:40) if increasing penalties might be seen as sending a message that it’s always the driver’s fault. Mr Brennan’s response is immediate and forthright:

Well, it is always the motorists fault. The law makes no allowances for drivers in this case. So, if you open a door into the path of a rider it’s always your fault.

At the end of the interview, the reporter throws back (at 3:30) to the talking heads in the studio – Michael Rowland and Karina Carvalho – who append the following patter to the report:

Michael: Thank you Simon. Now just to even the ledger up a tiny, weensy bit, did I hear him say it’s always the motorist’s fault or is my hearing failing?

Karina: We both heard that and I would say you probably need to take that comment with a little bit of caution.

Michael: A sackload of salt, not just a grain….and without pillorying cyclists at all – we love you cyclists, we love you motorists, we love everyone who watches us on ABC News Breakfast – but I have seen and we all have seen our fair share of reckless cyclists as well so I think it’s very unfair to purely blame motorists 100% of the time for that sort of thing.

Karina: More education and more awareness on both sides is what’s needed.

Michael: Good. We’re in agreement.

That’s the bit that’s understandably got cyclists’ backs up. As Gary Brennan very clearly states in the interview, the law unambiguously says dooring is the drivers fault, not the cyclists. Even putting the legal aspect to one side, I can’t imagine a situation on a road where any blame for a dooring incident could conceivably be attached to the cyclist. Possibly in a dedicated car park if a cyclist were riding between parked vehicles, but not on a road.

Would the proposed higher penalties work? I’m a cyclist but I confess I’ve opened the car door on occasions without thinking about bicycles. Drivers haven’t had to deal with this risk until relatively recently so it’s not something most do instinctively.

However a large fine will help concentrate the mind, especially if it’s backed up by driver training and ongoing promotional campaigns. We’ve learned dozens of other road rules and we’ve coped with new things, so we can learn to look before opening the car door too.

Some of the mechanics of Greg Barber’s proposed bill are contested. There’s general support for the higher fine, but VicRoads opposes the application of three demerit points and the Magistrates Court wants offences to continue to be dealt with by infringement notice. Victoria Police say the change would need to be backed up by an education campaign.

As for the talking heads Peter and Karina, the best that can be said in their defence is maybe they were referring to cyclists in general, rather than to doorings in particular. However that would be a weak defence – they should actually watch the stories they present if they want to comment on them. If they’d done that they’d know this story was solely about doorings.

The demand on talking heads to “enrich” the newstream with personable ad libbed comments brings with it the responsibility to know what you’re talking about.

I’ve heard the ABC has kind’ve admitted Peter and Karina were wrong and has buried it away in it’s Corrections & Clarifications page. However when I finally unearthed the link to the page on the ABC TV site and clicked on it, the only correction showing up is a trivial one dating from 2010. The ABC must either be perfect now, or it’s not admitting to errors anymore.

Update: OK, this seems very tricky of the ABC. Thanks to Twitter, I’m informed there’s another, separate Corrections & Clarifications page within the News section. It has the ABC’s fess up. Would the ordinary person reasonably expect there are two separate C&C pages? Perhaps there are more buried further down.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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73 thoughts on “What’s the TV news cycle doing to cycling?

  1. IkaInk

    “Therefore, sensible cyclists should manage their own safety and not rely on motorists to do the right thing, however much the motorists are legally or ethically obliged to not door cyclists.”

    I’m curious as to the measures you propose cyclists take. Nearly every bike lane in this city consists of a white line between parked cars and a lane of moving traffic that requires you (by law) to be in the bike lane. What sort of riding stops a door opening up 2ms in front of you?

    Really this is a multifaceted issue. There’s a number of issues that need to be addressed to greatly reduce doorings: driver awareness; bike infrastructure; and the tiny minority of doorings that are the riders fault.

    Whilst I believe bike infrastructure is the most important step we can take, it is also a medium-long term goal, and this government at least doesn’t give a stuff about it so we’ve got a while to wait before we even start correcting it on a city wide basis. Obviously separating bikes from cars altogether would be the best solution, but in most places that’s not possible. In a heck of a lot of locations it would be possible to move the parked cars to the edge of the current bike lane, then move the bike lane to the left hand side of parked cars. There could still be doorings from passengers; but the majority of cars don’t have anyone in the passenger seat, so they’d be rarer; and if you do door someone, at least there is a 0% chance of them getting thrown in the path of a passing vehicle (other bikes excluded). This option shouldn’t take any more space than the current situation, except perhaps enough to put up some kind of thin physical barrier to ensure cars don’t park in the bike lanes anyway. I imagine this solution might also help reduce boarding/alighting tram passengers and cyclist conflict, by allowing the tram passengers to take refuge between parked cars. The only real downside I see to this is that drivers and driver side passengers exiting their vehicles are more likely to be killed because they wouldn’t have the bike lane buffering them from traffic. Considering this nearly happened to a close cousin when she was about 8 years old I’m particularly aware of the problem, but at least then the onus would be on those exiting the vehicle to ensure their own safety. People seem to be much more aware of their own safety than they are of a random stranger’s.

    However, considering that the infrastructure goal is medium-long term driver awareness needs to be dealt with. I think an upped fine is a good start. I also think a law stating that people must open car doors with their left hand would be good. That forces people to turn, which will help them look. Enforcement of the law should be possible, even if no bikes are around. Before the law is introduced there should be a national TAC campaign, notifying drivers of the law and why it is being introduced. I imagine two ads, the first would go something like this:

    A driver parked, juggling the phone from hand to shoulder why simultaneously grabbing something off the passenger seat and opening the door.
    Then suddently a bike rider hitting the door hard, glass shattering, and some obvious injuries.
    Followed by some words on the new law and the consequences for not obeying the law, and pointing out that even if cyclists aren’t there that you can get fined for it. The message must be to always assume there is a cyclist. While the words are running, show the footage of how you should open the door instead, with the cyclist going past safely.

    The second one would be from the POV of the cyclist. Just them riding, during the day with a helmet. Then suddenly a car door opens, they swerve out of the way and get cleaned up by a passing car. Then follow with the new law, etc mentioned above.

    The final point, the tiny minority of times where it is the cyclists fault as far as I can see are nearly all problems of law already (no lights, etc) maybe there should also be some TAC style ads about sensible bike riding, although I’m hesitant about that because in other countries these campaigns have been shown to actively reduce cycling rates, a move that I believe wouldn’t be wise at all, given the health benefits of an active population, the safety in numbers principal, and the environmental benefits of people not driving.

  2. observa

    “Therefore, sensible cyclists should manage their own safety and not rely on motorists to do the right thing, however much the motorists are legally or ethically obliged to not door cyclists”

    “I’m curious as to the measures you propose cyclists take.”

    “What sort of riding stops a door opening up 2ms in front of you?”

    Nothing does, and that’s my point. It’s crazy to assume that people won’t door. Depending on the situation a cyclist can:

    1. Ride far away from parked cars enough to avoid any doors

    2. Use alternate routes.

    3. Slow down…at 30km/h a bike moves at over 8 metres a second. The reason cyclists get doored is not because people don’t check the mirrors – they do, becuase they don’t want to be collected by a motor vehicle. But they don’t see the bike which is small and fast moving. So if you need to cycle close to parked cars, slow down to the extent that you could safely stop if a door was opened, or at least not die if you crash into one. Cyclists do not have a right to travel at any speed they choose regardless of conditions any more than say a car driver motoring through an area thick with pedestrians. Cyclists can consider this slowing down either an infringement on their basic human rights or just a simple self-presevation tactic.

    Cyclists can also consider the fact that if they are speeding along next to a row of parked cars there will be hidden dangers such as kids or animals that may run out, or even people. Wouldn’t want to collide with those either, so again reducing speed is no bad idea.

    4. Watch for cars that are likely to have occupants. There’s many clues – heads in vehicles, exhaust fumes, lights on, interior lights lit. If you see such a car, slow down.

    5. Practice emergency stops and skids so if you do end up needing to avoid a door you can, or if you decide not do you hit it at the lowest possible speed.

    6. Use the footpath. It’s not legal, but on my route I do it all the time as there’s very few pedestrians and the few that are there I give a wide berth via the grass verge so as not to disturb them, and I slow down. There’s a couple of junctions I do not consider worth risking my life on and I’m quite happy to run the risk of whatever penalty the police consider appropriate if they catch me. I do not condone general use of footpaths by bikes.

    Again, the one with most to lose is the cyclist, so it’s up to them to take care of their own safety, not rely on others.

    Interestingly, most of the techinques and mindset above are actually taken from defensive car driving concepts where the first thing the instructors do is get the drivers out of the view they have some god-given entitlement to drive as they wish, and it’s always someone else’s fault.

    My route home involves a long stretch of 70km/h road with parked cars. I avoid dooring all the time by means of the techniques above. Twice tonight I hit the brakes hard, I didn’t need to in the end as nothing happened but better safe than sorry.

    On the way to work I also braked a little to allow a car to pull out in front of me as it was not clear if he was going to stop. He did, but again…I have more to lose, so I’m happy to be cautious. I have also on occasion jumped my bike over a kerb when I’ve been squeezed by a car. I can do this because I’ve practiced it in advance just in case I need the skill, it’s a defensive thing. I quite like life.

    Also, I think I’m the only cyclist in Australia who doesn’t own any lycra. I cycle in a business suit. Perhaps people are so shocked to see someone like that they cannot open their doors because they have frozen in amazement.

  3. IkaInk

    Also, I think I’m the only cyclist in Australia who doesn’t own any lycra. I cycle in a business suit. Perhaps people are so shocked to see someone like that they cannot open their doors because they have frozen in amazement.

    You wouldn’t catch me dead in Lycra, or a reflective vest. I don’t see bicycles as either a sport I need specialised gear for, nor dangerous enough to warrant looking absurd. I would also bet that the majority of the 15-30 year old cyclist market is in a similar boat to me, virtually all of my friends cycle a fair bit and none will don either the above mentioned items. I guess we’re all “too cool for it” and regard cycling as a more casual affair. My dad who’s nearing 70 also still cycles to work most days, in his cream suit with his pants tucked into his colourful socks (which he routinely forgets to un-tuck on arriving at the hospital he works at!).

    But let’s not get distracted by the issue here. I agree with your points above about riding defensively, and I too frequently break the law to do so. If I don’t believe a bike lane is safe, I’ll either ride right in the middle of the car lane (if you ride in the edge, cars seem to overtake you very quickly and very closely) or I opt for the footpath, which like you I usually find is near empty and I take care to avoid pedestrians and other things which cause me or someone else danger. This aside, I think having to break the law in order to make myself safer means there is something seriously wrong with the law itself. Any law which results in people being less safe than if they were breaking it, should not be a law at all.

  4. observa

    Yep Inka I agree if the law needs to be broken to make oneself safe the law is wrong. But then my view has always been what’s sensible, and the law second. I didn’t know that about the 15-30 demographic, interesting. Where I come from bikes are just a means of transport. You get on, you go somewhere. In Australia they’re to some extent a fashion statement where you must have an expensive bit of kit, pedal clips, all the gear. Nothing wrong in that, but for me a bike is just simple and cheap transportation. I also don’t ride it hard and long enough to need a shower afterwards on the way to work, I just go that little bit slower and don’t need to break out into a sweat.

    But we’re off-topic again.

    From Wikipedia (not always reliable, but I assume this quote is):

    ^ “At 15 mph it takes more than two car lengths to recognize a danger and stop, and you can’t see the danger two car lengths ahead. If someone opens a door close ahead of you, you have only one choice: dodge out into the traffic lane. It is much safer to ride there consistently in the first place. So ride far enough away from a string of parked cars to clear an open door. If there are gaps in the string of parked cars, don’t dodge out of the traffic lane between the cars. Because entering a traffic stream is one of the significant causes of car-bike collisions, don’t make yourself enter the stream more often than necessary.” John Forester, Effective Cycling, sixth edition, pp 296-297

  5. SBH

    “The cyclists get to rant and vent. The people offering a different opinion get called liars, knobs, scared and whatever else crosses your minds.” Interesting. So if a cyclist responds to accusations or seeks some moderation in tone they become the antagonist.

    You need to read all the comments Floorer.

    With reference to insulting, inflammatory language Floorer, it is pertinent and illustrating that you picked examples that don’t back up your argument but ignore cyclists (all cyclists apparently) being tagged as “lycra clad urban terrorists” and “two wheeled hoons” and “idiots” or the author being asked if he was ‘brain dead’. In that context, my reaction (unlike yours) was pretty measured.

    If it’s alright with you I will object to your inaccurate and flawed interpretation of what I wrote. I’ll do that on the basis that, on balance, I’m more likely to know what I meant than you are.I don’t believe in the Holy Trinity either sport but I haven’t called George Pell a liar because he does.

    Sorry, no, you’re right of course. Everyone who posts in Crikey is completely honest and rational 100% of the time and I should uncritically accept every word they say without demur. If you read again you will (well you won’t because your mind is made up, but someone exercising detached objective and reasonable judgement would) see that I did not accuse anyone of lying. Just like the shock jocks, in your mind if I say I don’t like kosher food I must be an anti-Semite.

    But to the point. It relates to liability under RR 296 how?

  6. fractious

    Michael Fanning:
    “you can’t as a cyclist rely on the law to protect you. You have to ride defensively”

    Absolutely. I ride a motorbike and a pushbike and drive (not all at the same time). Whenever I’m on two wheels I’m as awake and alert as I can be – no matter what the road rules are it’s my best defence. Watch the road, watch the road surface, watch not just other vehicles but who’s in them.

    I’m not excusing drivers for not looking at all, but this thread has suggested that there are hardly any exceptions to the notion that if a driver looks in their mirror they will see the bike. It simply ain’t so – in some instances a driver might well look in their door mirror but not see the bike – bikes are a much smaller “target”, many move quickly and can be not much more than an instant flash in a car mirror. As someone above mentioned, a lot of cars (especially modern ones for some perverse reason) have blind spots. Under most circumstances you would think that owners who know this would be even more vigilant, but it ain’t necessarily so. Cars styled to have big rear 3/4 panels and small rear windows are in fashion, but they’re a liability to anyone on 2 wheels – can you really sheet all of the blame home to the driver? Same goes with this country’s bizarre and blind (pun intended) obsession with flat glass door mirrors – aside from the US I know of no other nation that seems to believe its drivers can’t work out what to do with convex door mirrors. Convex mirrors give the driver a much wider field of vision – surely if everyone in Europe can deal with them Australians can too. Again many modern cars are “designed” (if that’s the word I want) with small door mirrors – tis the fashion I suspect. So, combine poor rear visbility (fashion) with small mirrors (fashion again) and flat glass (pointless hidebound tradition) and a driver could spend half a minute looking in the mirror, blink once and miss the cyclist. Add in lots of moving traffic on a busy street as a background and it’s not hard for me to see (sorry) how a drive could quite legitimately state they looked in their mirror and did not see a bike when they opened their door.

    As I said, I am not defending those drivers who don’t even bother looking – I hope, however, that I’ve got people to think about whether there are circumstances where a dooring is really *not* solely the driver’s fault.

    Not all doorings are because of the driver. Passenger doors hurt just as much but the door mirror is (or should be) aimed for the best view for the driver – that means the front seat passenger won’t be able to see much out of it. Yes I know they should look over their shoulder but most don’t. And don’f forget rear seat passengers – they have no mirrors at all. And yes, again they should look over their shoulder before opening the door, but many rear seat passengers are kids – they don’t always think about such things and may not remember in their rush to get out of the car to see a friend or Mum or the dog or whatever.

    All of which is a long-winded way of underlining that the person most responsible for a bike rider’s safety is the one on the bike. Take nothing for granted. The law won’t prevent carelessness or a moment’s inattention on the part of a car/ van/ truck/ bus driver, it won’t overcome stupid car design “features”, it won’t protect you from passenger doors and it won’t stop kids jumping out of a car.

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