This article was written by Yolanda Law, a solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp and a personal injury specialist with particular experience of cycling cases.
Whether a motorist is in a parking space or on the move, it is vital that they take care to look out for cyclists. In the Netherlands, people are taught to open a car door with their opposite hand, so if you were in a right-hand-drive car here, you would reach over with your left hand. This means that your body turns and people are inclined to look over their shoulder when opening the car door. This practice is not promoted in this country, hence why cyclists are often advised to cycle a door and a bit away from parked cars.
Cyclists being injured by drivers opening their car doors is remarkably common, yet it seems to have received very little attention. Figures released by parliament showed that in 2011, 594 cyclists were injured by incidents involving car doors, which was up from 468 in 2009. I suspect that in reality the figure is higher as I am sure there are many cyclists who do not report the incident and continue on their way (particularly if they are not injured too severely). This figure may well have risen since 2011 due to the continuing increase in cycling.
(This website lists people who have been killed around the world by car dooring, but mostly in North America. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since March 2013).
Rule 239 of the Highway Code states that motorists “MUST ensure you do not hit anyone when you open your door. Check for Cyclists or other traffic.” The Highway Code serves as guidance only, and non compliance with a rule of the Highway Code is not an offence. However, s.42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence to open “any door of a vehicle on a road so as to injure or endanger any person.”
It is worth noting that it is an offence to simply endanger a person (for example if they have to swerve to avoid a crash). There does not have to be a collision. The offence is not limited to drivers, so a passenger who injures or endangers a cyclist by opening a car door also commits the offence.
This offence is only punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 and no penalty points can be imposed on the offender’s licence. It is dealt with by the magistrate’s court and the defendant can plead guilty by letter. This is clearly wholly inadequate given the number of cyclists harmed by this, and the potential for harm it causes. Opening vehicle doors into the path of cyclists can often lead to serious injury or even death.
A gap in the law was highlighted in 2012 when Kenan Aydogdu was charged and tried for manslaughter in 2012 for the death of cyclist, Sam Harding, after he opened a car door into his path. Mr Aydogdu parked his car next to a bus lane which was shared by cyclists. He opened his door, hitting Mr Harding, who was flung into the path of a bus which was following him. The cyclist went under the wheels and was crushed. Mr Aydogdu had added a very high level of tint to his car windows which reduced visibility to 17%. He also admitted he had made a mistake by not looking in his mirror.
Mr Aydogdu was charged with manslaughter. Although the death involved a car, Mr Aydogdu could not be charged with Causing Death by Dangerous Driving as he was not driving. The jury took just over an hour to find Mr Aydogdu not guilty of manslaughter. As there was no other appropriate offence which he could have been charged with, he received no punishment or penalty. Clearly this shows a gap in the law which needs to be addressed.
In civil cases, the question has been raised of whether cyclists should anticipate that a car door may be opened in their path. This was considered in the case of John Burridge v Airwork Ltd (2004) where the Claimant cyclist was knocked into the road by a mini-bus door. He was then struck by another vehicle, causing him serious injury. The Defendant argued that the Claimant should have anticipated that the driver might open his door to get out after he had pulled over.
At first instance the court made no finding of contributory negligence. In the Court of Appeal, May LJ accepted that it was foreseeable that the driver might get out of his vehicle on the offside and that the Claimant had an opportunity to take avoiding action but was not at fault for failing to do so. The arguments advance by the Defendant infer that any cyclist injured when a vehicle door had been opened in their path had been guilty of contributory negligence. It was the view of May LJ that this placed too high a standard on cyclists.
Regrettably I come across these types of collisions regularly and it appears to me that more awareness needs to be raised of this issue. London Assembly Green Party member, Jenny Jones, noted that the Metropolitan police had only issued between seven and nine fixed penalty notices per year for this offence in the past seven years. In all of the cases I have dealt with, not a single offender has been given a fixed penalty notice as a result. This raises the question of why the police are not giving fixed penalty notices in these circumstances. I suspect it is partially down to police officers not being aware of the existence of the offence. The police also seem to sympathise with drivers who cause injury by momentary inattention, particularly where it is seen as a trivial lapse. However, the serious harm that was caused to Sam Harding and John Burridge highlights the fact that opening a car door into a cyclist’s path is far from a trivial matter.