The #1 Hazard for Road Cyclists: The Car Door

Jim Heath, at age 62, was quite healthy.

Or at least he was a month ago, as he pedaled along High Street in Auburn, California, during a 60-mile bike ride.

Then life went briefly blank.

He regained his wits an hour later, in the hospital. He had a concussion, a broken collarbone, four broken ribs, a broken wrist and a broken hand.

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"I didn't know what happened; I don't remember anything," Heath said last week, convalescing at home in Citrus Heights.

He had suffered one of the scariest fates of the urban bicyclist: He got "doored."

His biking partner that day, Tim Bartlett, recalled what happened.

Going about 19 mph, they were riding with traffic—as they are supposed to—over to the right, out of traffic's way, past parked cars.

"I was slightly ahead of Jim. All of sudden there is this sound, and Jim was up in the air," Bartlett said. "I saw his wheel up in the air. I thought, 'Oh God, this is bad.' I stopped, and I saw him on the ground unconscious."

Bartlett saw a parked car with its door open and a woman standing there. A witness told Bartlett the parked driver had opened her door just as the cyclists drew even.

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"He had no chance to avoid it. He didn't even see it," Bartlett said.

Heath, who says he will get back on his bike as soon as the doctors let him, is no rookie. He logs about 9,000 miles on his bike each year, more miles than many people put on their cars. He knows the rules of the road for bicyclists.

That means he knows this:

Bicycling in an urban area is dangerous because it involves sharing streets with drivers who often don't see cyclists coming.

Getting doored is not a typical mishap for bicyclists, but it isn't unusual either.

Most incidents happen in central city areas, where there are plenty of bicyclists and plenty of people getting out of parked cars without thinking to look for oncoming riders.

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Scott Clark, who works in midtown Auburn, got doored on the first day he commuted via bike to work. Clark was riding in the bike lane.

He saw the door open and tried to veer away, but the door caught his right handlebar. It took his bike out from under him in an instant, and he landed on his butt.

The guy who opened the door appeared stunned, Clark said. "Are you OK?" the man asked, jumping out of the truck as Clark rose from the pavement, shaky-legged, to inspect himself for damage.

The man was very apologetic. "I didn't see you," he said. "I've never done anything like that before. I've never hit anybody before."

Clark, like many cyclists, is usually hyper-aware of the problems of urban bike travel.

He tries to stay about a door's distance from parked cars, but with traffic speeding past on his left, he can't afford to drift too far in that direction.

He uses the typical cyclist trick of peering into the windows of cars parked ahead to see if anyone is sitting there, but with increasingly common tinted windows, headrests and the cyclist's own speed, it's far from a foolproof tactic.

The California state vehicle code, by the way, says you are not allowed to open the door on the side available to moving traffic unless it is safe and doesn't interfere with traffic.

As for cyclists, take a warning from Heath, a guy who knows: "You try to be prudent. But it happens in a fraction of a second."

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