What's the 'Dutch Reach'? 2 U.S. States Adopt It to Save Cyclists' Lives
Changing the way Americans open their car doors can help prevent cyclist injuries and fatalities.
- The "Dutch reach" is a term coined for a certain way for people to exit cars that keeps the safety of cyclists in mind.
- Illinois and Massachusetts are incorporating the concept into road safety manuals and driving tests.
How do you open your car door when you park on the street? There's a good chance you’re doing it wrong.
At least that’s what bike safety advocates say.
In recent years, they’ve been trying to get more drivers and passengers to do what's known as the "Dutch reach" -- using their far hand to open the door and get out of the car. If you're in the driver's seat, that means reaching with your right hand.
Thanks to new state laws, the concept will now appear in Illinois and Massachusetts road safety manuals and could show up on driving tests in those states. (Great Britain will also add information on the Dutch reach in the next printed version of its highway code manual.)
The maneuver is specifically designed to prevent cyclists from getting “doored” -- that is, hit by an opening door from a parked vehicle. That type of crash is common, especially where bike paths run along parked cars.
Reaching with the opposite hand forces exiting motorists to look over their road-side shoulder, which turns their head toward traffic and helps them see oncoming cyclists. Plus, using the far hand to open the door makes it harder to fling the door open and easier to quickly close it if a cyclist is approaching, says Michael Charney, an avid cyclist from Cambridge, Mass., who popularized the idea by coining the term "Dutch reach."
"It gets the public to know that bicycles are on the road and that just opening your door can kill someone," says Charney, who is also the executive director of the Dutch Reach Project. "That’s a vast improvement."
The Origin of the 'Dutch Reach'
People in the Netherlands, which has more bikes per capita than any other country, have been using the approach for at least half a century, says Charney. Although the practice isn't explicitly mentioned in Dutch driver safety materials, outsiders have noticed their unique habit and have encouraged it in the United States, and elsewhere, for years.
But the idea didn't catch on until 2016, when Charney came up with the term “Dutch reach.” He read about a cyclist who was killed in a dooring crash near his home, and an online commenter pointed out that people in the Netherlands opened their car doors differently to prevent those types of collisions.
Intrigued, Charney, a retired physician, called transportation officials, cycling advocates and anyone else he could think of to see if they had more information about the technique. He found isolated efforts to promote it, but nothing that had been widespread or sustained. For the concept to catch on, Charney decided, it needed a name. Hence, the term “Dutch reach” was born.
With a catchy name and an intuitive safety benefit, the Dutch reach took off. Charney says he’s found media coverage of the Dutch reach in 38 countries and in 28 languages. A short video from Outside magazine about it went somewhat viral.
Among those to take notice were officials in Illinois and Massachusetts.
Massachusetts transportation officials incorporated the Dutch reach into the state’s driver’s manual in 2017. Illinois state Rep. Theresa Mah, who represents parts of Chicago, heard about Massachusetts' move and successfully pushed for similar changes in her state. The law, signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August, also requires driving tests to include at least one question about cyclist safety -- potentially on the Dutch reach.
While some safety organizations have avoided the term “Dutch reach,” Mah decided to stick with it.
“There was more interest in it because of its unusual name,” she says.
What Bike Safety Advocates Really Want
While the Dutch reach can help prevent accidents, cycling advocates are quick to point out that protected bike lanes -- which are designed with barriers betweens cars and bikes -- would eliminate the danger of doorings altogether.
“Dooring crashes are on the mind of everybody who rides a bike in Chicago,” says Kyle Whitehead, the managing director of public affairs at the Active Transportation Alliance, which represents cyclists and pedestrians in the Chicago area.
The city recently added bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue, a major thoroughfare on the northwest side. But when the road narrows, cyclists have to choose whether to ride closer to parked cars or closer to traffic, both of which can be dangerous.
Charney, the Massachusetts doctor, agrees.
“The Dutch reach is not the solution; it’s part of the solution,” he says. “It’s about the forgotten hand: We need drivers and passengers to take some responsibility. I want people not just to just think about bikes but to see bikes.”