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Cyclists and the highway code review

View profile for Robert Dempsey
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In light of the government announcing a review of the highway code in an attempt to reduce road casualties, we wanted to highlight an article written last year by Rob Dempsey discussing the 'Dutch reach' practice.

Recent figures from the government show that from 2011-2015, eight cyclists have died as a result of carelessly-opened car doors. Cycling is more popular than ever, and a campaign launched by Cycling UK last month proposes a simple way to prevent so-called ‘car dooring’ accidents. But is it enough?

In a letter to the transport minister, Cycling UK chief executive Paul Tuohy has called for public awareness surrounding the dangers of opening car doors without first checking if cyclists are passing by. Wholly preventable injuries, and in some cases fatalities, have been caused by what has become commonly known as ‘car dooring’.

Cycling UK wants to encourage drivers and passengers to adopt the ‘Dutch reach’. This is the practice of opening the car door with the hand furthest away from the door, an exercise adopted in Holland. The logic behind this concept is that people are forced to physically look around and check the blind spot. In addition, the organisation argues that there should be limits on how far the door can be opened. Equally important to Cycling UK is the implementation of tougher penalties for people that cause injury through the practice of ‘car dooring’.

So how helpful are these suggestions in practice? How do they add to the regulations already in place?

In terms of education and good practice, the Highway Code already provides some assistance, with cyclists being listed as ‘Road Users Requiring Extra Care’ especially at junctions and when pulling off. Specifically, to the issue of the dangers of car doors, road users ‘must ensure they do not hit anyone when opening a car door and check for cyclists’.

It is perhaps apparent why Cycling UK feels this does not go far enough. First and foremost the Highway Code is directed at and read by drivers and not passengers who of course present the same risk of ‘car dooring’. Secondly the advice to ‘check for cyclists’ is rather generic, whilst the ‘Dutch reach’ method provides a specific method to avoid accidents of this type.

The UK driving test is also an education opportunity which is perhaps not utilised to its full potential. The ‘show and tell’ section of the driving test requires the learner to answer questions about the vehicle and its safety, yet questions about the safe opening of car doors are currently not incorporated, a change which could easily be implemented.

The education of cyclists could also be improved. Cycling UK believes that all cyclists should be able to identify the ‘door zone’ and be taught to avoid this wherever possible. Clearer and more prevalent road markings to identify the ‘door zone’ and to give adequate space for cyclists and drivers alike would also help in this respect.

Speak to our Cycling Accident Claims Department today if you have been involved in a cycling accident

From a legal aspect, in the case of John Burridge v Air Work Ltd (2004) the court addressed the responsibility of cyclists, as well as drivers in the situation where a car door, or minibus door in this specific case, is opened into the path of a cyclist. In this detailed case, it was felt the cyclist had not contributed to his injuries but it remains conceivable how cyclists could be held partly at fault if they, for example, ride erratically or steer too close to parked cars.

The tragic case of Sam Harding highlights how ineffective the law presently is in this area. In 2011 Sam Harding was involved in a collision when Kenan Aydogdu opened his car door into Harding’s path. Harding was subsequently thrown under a following bus and was killed. Because the driver had parked, he could not be charged with causing death by dangerous driving. There was no other appropriate road traffic offence which applied and, after the jury found him not guilty of manslaughter, there was no remaining applicable punishment or penalty.

The present position is set out under Section 105 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. It is stated “no person shall open, or cause or permit to be opened, any door of a vehicle on a road so as to injure or endanger any person.” The offence attracts a fine of up to £1,000. No penalty points are imposed on the offender’s licence.

This insignificant penalty may explain why Cycling UK chief executive Paul Tuohy feels that ‘car dooring’ is an offence around which awareness needs to be raised. There needs to be a greater understanding of the potential tragic consequences of 'car dooring', and the legal penalties need to be strengthened so that it is no longer wrongly seen as a minor offence.