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Get Legal: Doored? The law is on your side (but that might not be enough)

Posted by on April 22nd, 2014 at 9:20 am

door zone warning stencil-10

(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

If you ever have the unfortunate luck of coming into conflict with another road user, it’s always a pleasure to find out the law is in your favor.

Usually, conflicts on the road relate to the question of who has the right to the same space at the same time. Having someone open their car door into you — a.k.a. getting “doored” — falls into this category. Usually a motor vehicle operator fails to see a bicycle rider and opens a door so close to their path that a collision or near-miss occurs. While defensive riding can go a long way toward avoiding this sometimes painful encounter, sometimes there is just nothing a rider can do — everything happens too fast.

Fortunately, this is one of those areas where the law is on the side of the bicycle rider. Here’s the relevant section of Oregon’s Vehicle Code (remember bicycles are “vehicles” too) that prohibits opening the door of any vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so:

ORS 811.490: Improper opening or leaving open of vehicle door; penalty. (1) A person commits the offense of improper opening or leaving open a vehicle door if the person does any of the following:

    (a) Opens any door of a vehicle unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so and it can be done without interference with the movement of traffic, or with pedestrians and bicycles on sidewalks or shoulders.

    (b) Leaves a door open on the side of a vehicle available to traffic, or to pedestrians or bicycles on sidewalks or shoulders for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.

(2) The offense described in this section, improper opening or leaving open a vehicle door, is a Class D traffic infraction.

The scheduled bail amount for a Class D Traffic Infraction is $110.00, and the fine is the same. Note that the law makes it illegal not only to open the door when it interferes with people trying to get by, but it is also illegal to leave the door open longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.

One would think that the law is so clear-cut that disputes over who was at fault would never arise. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

From my experience investigating these cases, the motor vehicle driver is apologetic and completely willing to accept blame at the scene (in spite of the advice on many insurance identification cards which state, “do not accept fault for the accident”). But, by the time the motor vehicle operator thinks about it and talks to an insurance adjuster or attorney, their view of what happened suddenly changes.

The revised version goes something like this:

“I opened my car door with plenty of distance behind me for the approaching bicyclist to see it. If the bicyclist had been paying attention, he or she would have seen that my door was open and ridden around it. Since I only intended to have the door open long enough to get out of the car, the accident is mostly the fault of the bicyclist.”

Believe it or not, this argument is enough to inject a note of comparative negligence on the part of the person operating a bicycle into the equation in most cases.

The percentage of comparative fault works out to a pro rata reduction in the amount of damages, so the effect is significant. Add the fact that most of the members of any jury will identify primarily with the motor vehicle operator, not the bicycle rider, and you have a recipe for disappointment. Remember, under Oregon’s system of comparative fault, if a jury decides that the motor vehicle operator was partly at fault for opening the car door (less than 50%) but the person riding a bicycle was mostly at fault (more than 50%) for failing to pay close enough attention and to make a reasonable effort to avoid striking the open door, then the person riding the bicycle loses in court — even though the person operating the motor vehicle violated the vehicle code by his or her own admission.

I’ve found that in almost every car door collision case the person operating the motor vehicle is primarily at fault. However, it is essential in every case that the person riding the bicycle carefully remember and reconstruct the scene of the incident to demonstrate that there was not enough time to take necessary evasive action in order to avoid hitting the door. Usually, bicycle riders relate that things just happened too fast and there was simply not enough time to avoid the car door.

While it’s nice to have the law on your side, you also need to be prepared to make your case to an insurance adjuster. Knowing, and being ready to present in advance, Oregon’s law and a mental reconstruction of how the collision happened will prepare you to make a successful insurance claim.

Ray Thomas
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

This article is part of our monthly legal series with Portland-based lawyer and bike law expert Ray Thomas of Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton. (Disclaimer: STC&N is a BikePortland advertiser and this article is part of a paid promotional partnership.)

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  • John Liu
    John Liu April 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

    I’ve learned to:
    – Watch for heads or movement through the rear window of the parked cars as you approach.
    – Ride on or near the left edge of the bike lane when possible, ride in the traffic lane when necessary.
    – At night, use a helmet-mounted light to look for people about to open doors and to alert them to your approach.

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    • Emily April 22, 2014 at 10:06 am

      All of these are good suggestions. I would add:
      * Beware of tinted windows
      * Ride square in the middle of the lane to avoid people passing on the right. Own the lane… (see N Williams cycletrack, mostly in summer, but possible anytime)
      * Even if you are lit up like a Christmas tree (like I was when I was doored on N Williams right across from Kenny and Zuke’s) the door-opener may not be looking for you.
      Hopefully you have witnesses (I did. Thank you, Julia) who can corroborate. Get treatment and your bike fixed by the insurance company. Get back on your bike. 🙂

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      • Blake April 22, 2014 at 2:46 pm

        Getting insurance won’t always help. I got hit and the insurance company decided it was my fault and because there wasn’t damage and thankfully I was only shaken up (even though the door hit me across my face and neck), it wouldn’t be worth while to go and sue the insurance company.

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    • El Biciclero April 22, 2014 at 10:09 am

      I’ve learned to forget about the bike lane when it is in a door zone, and my definition of “as far to the right as practicable” excludes the door zone. I used to try watching for occupants of vehicles, but window tinting got too dark to always see, plus there’s just too much other stuff to watch out for. I have at least four video clips of doors opening immediately ahead of me that could have been collisions had I been any farther right. I do go on higher alert if I witness a vehicle arrive in a parking space ahead, or if I see brake lights on a parked car. Brake lights going off could mean a couple of things: someone is about to get out or pull out, depending (kind of) on which way the front wheels are pointed–watch for a door or a front fender to suddenly lunge at you.

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  • jonno April 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Lately I’ve found myself riding on the left edge of or just outside the bike lane when there are lots of cars to the right, specifically to avoid the doors (in fact I saw a near-dooring on Broadway this morning). Could I potentially face a ticket for this behavior?

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    • Alan Love April 22, 2014 at 11:00 am

      Yep. It’s the great Catch 22 of safe riding. Oregon law states you must ride as far to right as is practicable (a subjective term, to be sure). And if you leave a bike lane for “no good reason” as the young man in Southern Oregon did (see BP from a week or two ago) you get a ticket. Ride in the bike lane, get doored. Take the lane, get a ticket, even though the argument to take the lane is sound. In essence, it seems the inclination of the officer involved is the deciding factor, nothing more.

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      • spare_wheel April 22, 2014 at 2:39 pm

        rescind 814.430!

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  • El Biciclero April 22, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Your Honor, I’d like to call GoPro to the stand…Now Mr. GoPro, you’ve been sworn; could you just show us events as they actually happened, to the best of your digital recollection?

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    • davemess April 22, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      Sad but true. We’re becoming more and more like Russia every day……

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  • Chris I April 22, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I’ve given up on trying to predict when doors are going to open. I just hug the white line and stay clear of the door zone. I’d rather get clipped by a car going 10mph faster than me on my left, then get creamed by a car door on my right at 15-20mph. The drivers on the left are more likely to be paying attention to you, because you are right in their field of vision.

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  • Troy Haliwell April 22, 2014 at 10:03 am

    In Washington, we who ride bikes have all the same rights, rules, responsibilities, and access that automobile drivers have. In fact, we can ride any and all state highways and freeways except for certain stretches of the busiest ones with the most potential for accidents (See list at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/bike/closed.htm).

    This means in door cases, both parties stand to be at fault should both show negligence.

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    • Spiffy April 24, 2014 at 11:13 am

      in Washington you’re not required by law to ride in the bike lane where you’re likely to get doored… in Oregon you are required to ride in the door zone: aka bike lane…

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  • Steve Brown April 22, 2014 at 10:46 am

    How about a Portland Police sting? Have police hire riders in high door traffic areas, cite, fine and show it on the news. This is what will happen when you open a car door in a bike lane. My guess is there will be a rolling stop sting before this happens.

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    • Kimberly Kinchen April 22, 2014 at 10:52 am

      Just trying to imagine how this kind of sting would work without police putting themselves at a fairly high risk of serious injury or worse.

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      • Chris I April 22, 2014 at 12:28 pm

        Exactly. Never going to happen.

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      • dr2chase April 22, 2014 at 8:13 pm

        Just need to enlist the laws of physics.
        Skip ahead to 6:45 for a near miss.

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      • Spiffy April 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

        too risky for police, but just fine for junior and grandma…

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  • AndyC of Linnton April 22, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I was about to suggest that maybe we put up some signs in certain areas warning of door zones and people exiting cars not paying attention, but then realized that if you ride a bike you probably already know and travel like no-one in a car is paying attention to any other road user.
    Thanks for the article, I hope to never be in need of referencing it.

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    • SilkySlim April 22, 2014 at 10:57 am

      They have some markings like this on SW Broadway already (where it definitely is needed!).

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      • El Biciclero April 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

        What do those markings look like?

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      • Spiffy April 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

        I just checked Google street view and didn’t find any signs…

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  • Joe April 22, 2014 at 11:15 am

    broadway is door zone fest 🙁 but how about cars that see parking spot to only zip passed and turn right even if you going well on a bike. some fokes will leave door open to step right into bike lane.. agh simple fix just always look before opening 🙂 oh and sharing is awesome

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  • Scott H April 22, 2014 at 11:40 am

    This is a great series.

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  • Charley Gee April 22, 2014 at 11:46 am

    When I learned this it totally changed the way I open my car door. Such a simple concept to teach and use:

    “Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/the-dutch-way-bicycles-and-fresh-bread.html?_r=0

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    • El Biciclero April 22, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      If car manufacturers placed the interior door latch handle higher on the door and farther back, it would force this behavior. But it would be infinitesimally less convenient for the driver, so no auto manufacturer will be the first to do it. Plus, I guess such a design change could be construed as not accommodating the girth-challenged…

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  • dan April 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    “I opened my car door with plenty of distance behind me for the approaching bicyclist to see it. If the bicyclist had been paying attention, he or she would have seen that my door was open and ridden around it. Since I only intended to have the door open long enough to get out of the car, the accident is mostly the fault of the bicyclist.”

    So wrong, you admit knowingly breaking the law and that reduces your % responsibility?

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  • Bike Commuter April 22, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I never ride in the door zone. On streets that do not have a bike lane I take the lane. When biking in a bike lane, i am always careful and if necessary I move into the lane to avoid situations where a door may open. Dodging an opening door may put you under the wheels of a car in the lane. This is particularly important when there are a lot of parked delivery vehicles as many open their door and can’t see anyone. I can’t duck that fast. When a bike lane is narrow such as along Broadway SW I find a different street if at all possible and go into the lane when there are parked vehicles especially near the hotels.

    Taking the lane also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry so much about right hooks. If you look, PBOT recommends that you take the lane especially downtown. Now all we need to do is get the drivers who think you are wrong and who run up behind you, honk their horn, rev their engines, and then pass unacceptably close. I had a garbage truck do that this past week, and he almost clipped a car in doing so as he paid no attention to anything else on the road. Not that this got him anywhere, I was behind him and held up by him until he turned off.

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  • davemess April 22, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    I really hate Comparative Fault.

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    • are April 22, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      the opposite of comparative fault is contributory negligence, which would mean if the cyclist was even slightly at fault s/he gets zero.

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      • davemess April 23, 2014 at 1:06 pm

        So what is in between?

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        • are April 23, 2014 at 9:12 pm

          i guess i am not understanding your question. comparative fault allows an injured party to recover even if they were also negligent, but the amount of recovery is reduced. this concept has largely replaced what used to be the rule, contributory negligence you get zero. a third alternative, albeit not “between,” would be strict liability, where in effect the motorist is presumed to be entirely at fault. another possibility would be social insurance, where the community simply covers everyone for all possible injuries.

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          • Spiffy April 24, 2014 at 11:26 am

            where the community simply covers everyone for all possible injuries.

            as somebody that doesn’t own a car I already feel like this is in effect… I’m paying for all those emergency room visits caused by all the motor vehicle accidents…

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  • mabsf April 22, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    In my experience driver are more careful in busy streets because they don’t want to loose their doors to passing cars…
    Now, side street and separated bike lanes are a different game:
    – Rush hour on side streets is whack-the-cyclist: everybody is happy to be finally home, opens the door, then gathers their stuff…
    – I wish car makers would extend their dead-angle warning to bikes and make lights on the car doors a standard issue…

    On the separated bike ways you have to fight with the passengers who are relatively unused to careful door opening… that why I HATE the separated bike lane on Broadway…

    …and while dooring isn’t bad enough – my big fear is to be hit by the following car while I am laying stunned on the street…

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  • Jen April 22, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Make sure the police check the driver’s license and insurance at the scene, if you are able. I was doored by a someone without insurance, or a license. A lawyer discovered this later. The police didn’t ask at the scene. I went to the hospital in an ambulance. A bystander got the name and number of the driver and handed it to me. I called for weeks, but the driver didn’t answer her phone. I didn’t get compensation for my destroyed bike or medical bills. The driver got off without even a ticket.

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  • Tom April 23, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I’ve been doored. After one, I inquired with my insurance co. about what I need to do to claim damages, and was advised to file a police report at the time of the incident. So, next time I was doored I remembered that and called the Police. They would not send an officer to the scene unless I required medical attention, which I didn’t (though the next day, I regretted that when the pain set in).

    I’m not sure if I was given bad advice, but I was surprised that PDX Police wouldn’t respond.

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    • Spiffy April 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

      PPB simply doesn’t want to bother with you until you’re bleeding…

      I called 911 to report a road-rager and his young son throwing things at my vehicle on the freeway… they wouldn’t send anybody out until my vehicle was damaged (I couldn’t tell from inside) or I was injured…

      next time I call 911 I’m simply screaming that I need help and what my location is and then I’m hanging up… that way I can be assured that a cop will show up to figure out what’s going on…

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    • PdxPhoenix April 27, 2014 at 12:56 am

      repeat after me… In ANY collision between a motor vehicle & bicycle… the bicycle rider is ALWAYS injured & in need of medical help. Demand PPB & an ambulance.

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