MassDOT adds ‘Dutch Reach’ to driver’s manual
By Steve Annear Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation wants motorists to practice a method of getting out of their cars that has long been the standard in places like the Netherlands.
The department announced Tuesday that the Registry of Motor Vehicles has added the “Dutch Reach” safety procedure to its latest driver’s manual, in an effort to reduce the number of “dooring” incidents involving cyclists.
In the Dutch Reach, drivers use their right hand when opening their door, forcing them to turn their bodies and almost unintentionally glance into a sideview mirror to check for oncoming cyclists.
The idea is to keep cyclists safe from getting hit by doors that drivers have opened unexpectedly. When cyclists are “doored,” or are forced to swerve to avoid doors, they can be seriously injured, or even killed.
In Boston alone, police responded to 202 dooring incidents between 2009 and 2012, according to state transportation officials.
The added language about the Dutch Reach that now appears in the driver’s manual says that “Open vehicle doors pose a very serious threat to bicyclists,” and suggests drivers and passengers follow three simple steps.
“1. Check your rear-view mirror.
2. Check your side-view mirror.
3. Open the door with your far hand, (the hand farther from the door),” the directions state.
Officials stressed that the method is not a law or a requirement, but merely a suggestion to promote safety. It may be added to the driver’s education curriculum at a later date, but will not be a reason for failing a test. Motorists already face penalties for opening their doors into the path of bicyclists.
A spokesperson from MassDOT said the RMV updates its manual twice per year.
The actual movement isn’t new. A Globe article from 2013 that recounted a reporter’s visit to the Netherlands highlighted how drivers there are required to use their right hand to open a door as part of a driving exam.
While the state only just latched onto the idea, a local bicycle advocate has been spearheading a grassroots public information campaign using the catchy term “Dutch Reach” for almost a year.
He’s largely responsible for the directions making their way into the updated manual the state just released.
Michael Charney, a 70-year-old retired doctor from Cambridge, rolled out a website called Dutchreach.org around September. The personal project was launched after Amanda Phillips, a 27-year-old barista at Somerville’s Diesel Cafe, was killed in a crash involving a car door in Inman Square last summer.
His idea, which was based on information he gathered from a blog item and a New York Times article from 2011, found early success in Somerville, when police agreed to work with Charney and put a message about the Dutch Reach up on an electronic sign board outside the Veterans Memorial Rink. The message read, “Safer to open car door with far hand,” in three separate, blinking sentences.
Two months later the term Dutch Reach gained legs, and was adopted by lawmakers in Canada.
Member of Parliament Joël Lightbound announced in November a sticker campaign focused on teaching drivers the Dutch Reach, citing the number of cyclists who have been seriously injured or killed in Canada because of dooring.
Lightbound’s sticker campaign featured an image from Charney’s website.
Charney worked closely with the RMV, bicycle advocacy groups, and state legislators to bring the initiative to Massachusetts.
He said at first he was told it would be a long shot, and could take a couple of years to implement. He was even told it wasn’t a sure thing.
But in a telephone interview Tuesday, following the RMV’s announcement, Charney said he was pleased by how quickly things moved ahead.
“It’s incredible,” Charney said. “This is a bingo. This is a set-point goal. This is what I was aiming for.”
Charney added that the need to curb doorings is global.
Richard Fries, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, or MassBike, was impressed by the RMV’s willingness to add Charney’s proposal to the driver’s manual.
“I was stunned by how flexible and receptive the registry was,” he said. “When we think of the RMV, we think of the ultimate governmental bureaucracy, and they were able to turn on a dime and do this.”
He said the timing of the rollout is perfect. As more people turn to ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber, where cars are constantly pulling over and people are frequently exiting vehicles, getting this information out to drivers is more important than ever, he said.
“This is an effective way to get it into general car culture,” he said. “At this point, it’s a recommendation and it’s just like reminding people to look both ways before you proceed through an intersection, or checking your mirrors before you back up. All those things we learn in driver’s education. But it starts a dialogue.”
To supplement the information that was added to the driver’s manual, MassDOT and the RMV also created a video that demonstrates the step-by-step actions involved when practicing the Dutch Reach.
The one-minute informational video was posted to YouTube to coincide with the announcement about the safety initiative.
Also outlined in the updated manual are instructions for driving on roads with separated bicycle lanes, and how to use “bicycle boxes” — bright green spaces reserved for cyclists — at intersections.
“As we continue to promote all modes of transportation in today’s world, the RMV is working hard to ensure that drivers and bicyclists can each get where they need to be safely,” Erin Deveney, registrar of motor vehicles, said in a statement. “By adding new bicycle safety language to the Driver’s Manual, we aim to further clarify the responsibilities that bicyclists and motorists inherit when they travel on Massachusetts roads.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.