Monday, October 8, 2012

A Teachable Moment Arises From Death Of Chicago Bicyclist

That could have been me.

That sickening current of feeling has been lingering through Chicago's bicycling community since the tragic death of 32 year old bicyclist Neill Townsend on Friday.  Neil was riding southbound in a dedicated bike lane on North Wells Street in Old Town when the driver of a parallel parked car opened his door into Neil's path.  The door suddenly appearing in front of him, Neill apparently swerved left into the path of the semi truck which ran him over and killed him.  He was an attorney, avid city cyclist and lover of soccer.  (Click here to read more from The Chicago Tribune's excellent coverage of this incident.)

City cyclists know that it is common for drivers of parked cars to carelessly open their doors into the path of bicyclists riding along the ride side of the roadway.  Injuries from this type of incident are plentiful in Chicago.  In my bicycle law practice dooring incidents account for roughly half of all of the cases in which I have represented bicyclists over the years.  This year I represented a bicyclist doored in April who easily could have ended up like Neil.  He was riding southbound on North Halsted Street in a dedicated bicycle lane in Lakeview when the driver of a parked car opened her door into his path.  An experienced bicycle delivery rider, the cyclist swerved to the left where he was hit by  a passing car and thrown off of his bike.  He was lucky not to have been killed, walking away with significant but not life altering injuries.  Had the vehicle to his left been a large truck or bus, he would have faired much worse.  In October, 2010 a bicyclist was riding on North Clark Street in Lincoln Park when the driver of parked vehicle opened his door into the cyclist's path.  The rider was thrown to the left where the No. 36 CTA Broadway bus ran him over.  That cyclist suffered "many broken bones."

Dooring incidents are easy to prevent.  Motorists already have the tools necessary to avoid them entirely:  their eyes and their vehicles' side view mirrors.  But dooring incident keep happening day after day. This weekend Chicago's WBEZ published a map demonstrating where and how many doorings occurred in Chicago from 2009 to September 7, 2012.  There have been 577 incidents reported.

There are things that bicyclists can do to reduce their chances of getting doored.  One important thing involves lane positioning. Illinois bicyclist are not required to ride in the dooring zone, that few feet to the left of parallel parked cars.  The rules of the road require bicyclists to ride "as close as practicable and safe to the right-hand curb." 625 ILCS 5/11-1505 (emphasis added).  Many bicyclists understandably interpret this law to require them to hug the right side of the street, even if doing so means riding very close to parked cars.  The statute, however, requires no such thing as demonstrated by the words I have highlighted, "practicable and safe." Simply put, it is neither practicable nor safe to ride in the dooring zone as Neil's death tragically highlights.  Therefore, bicyclists need not, and should  not, ride too closely to parked cars.  If riding in a dedicated bike lane, ride on its outer left edge.  If the street is narrow and lacks a bike lane, you may ride in and with motor vehicle traffic.  You may "take the lane," so to speak.  Bicyclists in Illinois have just as much right to do so as do cars and trucks.

Of course taking the lane is just not going to be something every bicyclist feels comfortable doing.  In fairness, doing so requires a certain amount of aggressiveness that not everyone has.  Having an impatient motorist behind you laying on his or her horn while you take the lane may prompt some cyclists to throw in the towel entirely. Really, who wants to deal with that kind of constant stress and hassle while out running errands or riding to work.  The city bares significant responsibility to its cycling community to create an infrastructure that reduces the chances of a bicyclist getting doored. Chicago is doing that, creating many new bicycle lanes positioned to the right of parked cars with a buffer zone to the cyclist's left that allows room for a car door to open outside the path of a passing rider.  The protected bike lane on Kinzie Avenue is a good example of this.  Unfortunately, these changes to our infrastructure are happening too slowly.  Had a protected bike lane been in place along Wells Street last Friday Neill Townsend would still be with us today.


  1. Do we know what became of the driver? I was there that morning and saw the young man standing there in shock. I understand he waited there for police to arrive and showed them how it had all happened. Was he just ticketed, or was he charged with something more serious?

  2. It's about time that the government take some time in improving and providing stricter laws regarding the rights of the bikers and the area a car could park in which it'll not bother the other users of the road. It's saddening to hear that a case or an accident like this should take place first before we realize that there is something wrong with our society's overall system. I hope the issue will enlighten the authorities in charge and that, we will not hear another Neil Townsend incident in the future.


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