Invisible Man

dooring_1.jpgThe brain experts tell us vision is an act of discrimination. In other words, we don’t see everything; see what we look for, what we expect to see.

Which probably explains how the guy on Avenue B over near 10th Street opened his door directly in front of me, just after sticking his head out the window and looking back. He wasn’t looking for a thin vertical line, i.e. a man on a bicycle. He was looking for a big bulky object that might be a car or a truck. He "edited out" all visual information that wasn’t that.

I let out an involuntary scream, squeezed my handlebar brakes, swiveled to one side, half fell off my bike but did not completely lose control. I was not injured. I was happy about that, but shaken that such an incident could occur.

I was angry at the guy, but my anger really didn’t make sense. After all, the guy had looked. He just didn’t see me.

It’s in this situation that I think the now studied "Safety in Numbers" phenomena will gradually help cyclists. Over time, and cyclists grow in number on New York City streets, drivers, whether parked or otherwise, will start looking for them. They will expect to see cyclists, and thus will see them. We, as objects, will start to exist.

I look forward to the day.

  • ex-messenger

    He saw you, he just didn’t care.
    You make the mistake of believing that he was looking for traffic out of consideration for others & doesn’t think of bikes as traffic.
    He was looking for something that could break his door. You can’t break his door, so why worry about you?
    Motorists will begin to look out for bikes when opening their doors when bikes get a lot heavier or car door hinges get flimsier.
    My brother once broke the door hinge of a cab on a Schwinn cruiser, but most bikes will break first.

  • rhubarbpie

    I hope that you are ok, Alex. After my motorist incident yesterday afternoon — in which the driver of a green Range Rover (Connecticut plate 461 WEH) emerged enraged of his vehicle at the corner of Broadway & 16th and tried to attack me after I slapped his car because it hadn’t waited for me at the crosswalk — I am still a bit sore. In trying to get away from him, I fell and am a bit scraped up. I won’t be slapping any more cars, that’s for sure. (I usually don’t, but just lost my cool with this guy.)

    For my trouble, I received a ticket for disorderly conduct and what looks like “blocking the flow of traffic” or something. I’ll be in court on Jan. 17 to challenge it. My friend in the Range Rover also received a ticket.

  • rhubarbpie

    Note: I was walking, not on a bike.

  • Hilary

    Surely defending yourself against a vehicle is not a crime. I hope your day in court is an opportunity to make that statement, and that you are supported by sympathetic pedestrians and bikers. Let us know when it’s time for your case.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Ex-messenger, I think Alex is applying Hanlon’s Razor and, without hard evidence, assuming stupidity rather than malice.

    “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

  • Brooklyn

    Alex, the same things happen on a bike — there have been times turning at an intersection — particularly nasty ones like 2nd Ave & Houston — that I will almost miss seeing a pedestrian because I’m looking for a car or truck.

    We should reduce risk factors producing that worst outcome; to prevent getting doored take the lane instead of hewing close to parked cars. Unfortunately, city streets sometimes have too much going on to keep track — i.e. staying clear of pedestrians while maneuvering around potholes and tracking cars in your path.

    We have to assume that drivers will have the same, or worse, multitasking challenge.

  • Zvi

    As a bicyclist (or a pedetrian), one needs to be ‘on guard’ at all times with cars. If I see someone sitting in a parked car, I automatically expect that they may open the door immediately in front of me! Never assume anything (ie that they see you)- unless you make MUTUAL eye contact. In an accident you will always be the loser, no matter who was “at fault”.

    As for attacking cars, I too occasionally give in to this compulsion and give the odd hand slap yell with an appropriate hand gesture. The only response this technique has ever gotten me was hostility. Of course I quickly respond in-kind (I fantasize about banging some idiot drivers’ head into their car door!), but this does not lead to anything productive. I know a few people who have even been seriously beaten by irate motorists…. If you can keep your wits about you and respond with humour, you are far more likely to make an impact!

    In terms of reducing this type of incident, this is where I think that simple paint on the road can be a great help: just paint a narrow strip between the parked cars and the traffic lanes where bicycles are ‘expected’ to travel. This does not need to be a physically separated bike lane – cars can still cross it (to park or turn), but it does delineate a certain space where bicycles are “expected” to have some freedom of movement. I would hope that a driver opening his door into such a lane would look more attentively for bicyclists.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    To paraphrase Horace Greeley, “Move left, young man.”

    Almost no bicyclist should ride in the door zone, the roadway space known to be among the most dangerous places to ride. The only somewhat safe way to do so is to ride at no more than 3-5 mph so that one may quickly stop when the next door opens.

    Sure, the motorist is legally required to not open the door until it’s safe to do so, and he or she should be castigated (perhaps even cited) for not doing so in this instance.

    But it’s discouraging that this nationally known go-to site pertaining to urban bicycling and related contexts seemingly relieves bicyclists of any need to be knowledgable or skilled regarding the roadway environment.

    Yes, we all agree that bicycling is now too difficult owing to the traffic mess. Yes, we all support a variety of policies to reduce the number and speed of vehicles on our roadways, thus making bicycling more inviting and less difficult. Yes, we should support the testing of innovative street and related facility designs to find out what works. Yes, over time safety-in-numbers will raise motorists’ awareness and make us all safer.

    But not even in our fondest dreams should we envision a world in which it’s safe to ride next to parked cars in areas of even moderately high parking turnover. Not as long as there are error-prone people inside of them.

    Grow up, get out there and use the roadway space that is yours.

  • rhubarbpie

    Thanks, Hilary — see you in court on Jan. 17! I’ll send on more details if you write

    I agree that good humor, or at least calmness, is the best way to deal with automobile offenders, and I usually employ it. I have gone up to drivers as they sit in traffic and politely tell them that I hope they’ll observe the law the next time, because they wouldn’t want to have to live with having hit or killed someone. I always get a decent response.

    I didn’t take that tactic this time, in part because the driver was about to make his way down 16th Street so I wouldn’t have been able to catch him. But I’ve learned my lesson.

    Sorry to have hijacked, at least a little bit, this thread.

  • Jonathan

    ex-messenger, I agree with Angus above; it’s stupidity, not malice. Have you priced auto body repair lately? Fixing the small dent and scratched paint produced by a collision with a bicycle (or other car) would cost at least $500 and probably $1,000. And her insurance won’t pay for it, since it’s the driver’s fault.

    Hilary & rhubarbpie: I agree that defending yourself against a vehicle is not a crime, but pounding on someone’s automobile (or bike or stroller) to express your hostility is a really stupid idea.

    What did you think was going to happen? A road-to-Tarsus-style conversion, with the guy abandoning his car with motor running right there by Union Square, gathering his kids, ducking into the subway, and taking the no. 4 train and Metro-North back to Connecticut?

  • “Brooklyn’s” comment is true, I hate to say. When I’m on a bike, I initially tended to look almost entirely for cars. I didn’t want to be hit by them. I gradually realized I was overlooking pedestrians. Now I adjust for them, trying to compensate for the natural tendency to look first for the object that will kill you.

  • bicyclebelle

    I wouldn’t have believed ex-messenger’s take on this except for what happened last week. I was nearly doored and requested nicely that the offending car passenger please look before opening his door. His response was that he didn’t care. I then pointed out nicely that he could easily kill someone. He then stood on the sidewalk and yelled several times at the top of his lungs that he really didn’t care. This guy was in a suit in Tribeca.

    And Chris, I’m fully grown up thanks. Do you ride here? Obviously the streets are too crowded to stay out of the door zone 100% of the time. The big problem is double-parked cars but there are also potholes and of course unmoving traffic jambs which most cyclists aren’t going to sit in. Saying cyclists can stay out of the door zone all the time is unrealistic.

  • rhubarbpie

    Quoting Jonathan:

    “Hilary & rhubarbpie: I agree that defending yourself against a vehicle is not a crime, but pounding on someone’s automobile (or bike or stroller) to express your hostility is a really stupid idea.”

    Agreed. While I have done this countless times before, I won’t do it again. However, not sure where the stroller comment comes in — I was, after all, hitting a Range Rover, not a fold-up conveyance carrying a baby.

    Quoting Jonathan:

    “What did you think was going to happen? A road-to-Tarsus-style conversion, with the guy abandoning his car with motor running right there by Union Square, gathering his kids, ducking into the subway, and taking the no. 4 train and Metro-North back to Connecticut?”

    The point of slapping a car (again with the acknowledgment that this is not a great tactic) — or at least expressing your unhappiness with how drivers conduct themselves is not to convert them, but to make them realize that they are not the only ones on the street, that there are other people who, in fact, they could injure or kill with their vehicle if they drive poorly, and that they have disobeyed the law.

    Which, by the way, this driver appeared to have only a faint knowledge of, perhaps proving your point. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to go if there was a pedestrian in front of his vehicle, but based on his statements to the police he had no knowledge of basic traffic rules that allow the pedestrian to have the right of way.

  • Jonathan

    rhubarbpie: thanks for your thoughtful response. I added in the “stroller” part because I wanted to broaden my case against aggressive behavior beyond just punching cars.

    I admit, I have in my life pounded on my share of cars, but I have never seen it make a difference, and that rush of adrenaline I used to get from doing it just isn’t that pleasant any more as I get older.

  • Gwin

    rhubarbpie: what a horrible story, and hope you heal quickly (you should take some photos and/or see a doctor — you never know, this could come in handy in court). God knows I’ve definitely slapped cars in my time.. .good luck to you in January!

    As far as the “dooring” thing is concerned — I try to ride at the edge of traffic, but outside of the possible arc a car door could take. Believe me, I’ve been yelled at many times by motorists, saying *I* should be more careful when *they* are the ones who nearly hit me. If I HADN’T been careful, then they WOULD have hit me!

    However, I generally believe that taking up a full traffic lane is selfish and irresponsible. Unless there’s a traffic jam, cars usually go a lot faster than most cyclists.

  • Spud Spudly

    It’s those damned Connecticut drivers, I tell you. The only thing worse than a Connecticut driver in a Range Rover is a Connecticut driver in a BMW SUV.

  • Steve

    I would modify ex-mess’ comment to suggest that the motorist did see, you, but did not know it was his job to avoid a collision by opening the door only after confirming that no bicyclists were coming.

    I agree wholeheartedly about safety in numbers. I like to “join up” with other bicyclists when I’m traveling any distance because two bicyclists are more visible than one. It also makes things friedlier and sometimes you meet interesting people.

    Rhu, good luck in court; please report the results here. I’ve felt like slapping many times but have so far resisted the temptation. Well-chosen words can do the trick. If the driver pretends not to hear then I resort to the gentle knock. I’ve never had a motorist interpret this as an attack.

    Chris, You are making a lot of assumptions, some of which are pointed out by ‘belle. You suggest that 5 MPH bicycling is a waste of time. It’s not. It’s the only safe way for children and many begginers to travel safely. It’s also the approximately speed I travel on city streets when I’ve got a heavy or wide load of cargo, or I’m using a trailer. These are the same reasons why on-street lanes are a useful and important part of the overall bicycling infrastructure. A person proceeding 5 mph and looking vigilantly for car occupants (and bell-ringing when occupants are seen) will reduce the risk of significant injury from dooring to near zero. That’s a perfectly valid way to travel by bike. After a few months or even years, when a bicyclist feels confident, experienced and strong enough, they can move out into traffic. NYC law lets the bicyclist choose where to ride in most situations. And I personally would agree that if one is moving at 5 MPH or so, then in most circumstances it is rude and inconsiderate to motorists to take the traffic lane.


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