It was shortly after the death of a 27-year-old bicyclist when Michael Charney first heard about the far hand — or Dutch — reach. The simple technique could have saved the young woman’s life.
The far hand reach stops drivers and passengers from opening a vehicle door in front of an oncoming cyclist, pedestrian or vehicle. It involves the driver or passenger inside a vehicle using their far hand — the hand furthest from the door — to open the door to exit. When people use this method, they must reach across their body, which causes them to swivel. They then are in an ideal position to look at the side-view mirror and along the side of the vehicle to check for approaching traffic. The far hand reach curbs the sudden, wide opening of vehicle doors, which too often ambush cyclists and others passing by.
It is a game-changer when it comes to safety. Charney, a retired physician, has spent nearly three years working to spread the word about the technique. His Dutch Reach Project website, http://www.dutchreach.org, includes videos, graphics, research and other materials about the topic.
In recognition of National Bike Month in May, the National Safety Council connected with Charney to learn more about what drives him to promote the far hand reach. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
National Safety Council: For those who have never heard of the far hand reach, can you tell us more about it?
Michael Charney: Whether a driver or passenger, the far hand habit is the safest way to get out of your car to avoid collisions. It makes checking the mirror and looking back over your shoulder almost automatic. Most simply: Reach, turn, look.
NSC: Why should drivers care about using the far hand reach?
MC: It’s safer for all: for you and your passengers, for bicyclists and other road users, and your door! Doors are dangerous, and “doorings” — when a cyclist rides into a car door or is struck by a car door that was opened quickly — are among the most common bike-car crashes in many cities.
About a third of drivers fail to check for traffic before exiting their vehicle. Most use their near hand to undo the latch and then push or fling the door wide open. With little or no time to avert a crash, cyclists may swerve, crash or be knocked into the path of another vehicle and suffer serious injury or even death.
In most states, it is illegal to obstruct traffic with an opened door. A driver can face criminal or civil penalties, insurance points, license or job loss, shame, and lifelong guilt and remorse.
NSC: What have you found to be the most effective way to get drivers to adopt the far hand reach?
MC: No one answer here. Teaching the young is easiest and most effective. Current drivers and passengers must be informed and motivated to swap out their lifelong (but flawed) near-hand push or shove habit.
Swapping habits is far easier than getting to Carnegie Hall. But you still must practice — daily, for a month or more. You need to make it muscle memory. As a reminder, tie a ribbon or pipe cleaner on the door latch, or post a note or sticker on the dash. If you teach your kids, they’ll badger you to do it! As with non-smoking, recycling, seat belt use and sneezing into your arm, we can and do change.
NSC: What motivates you to spread the word about the far hand reach?
MC: It’s such a good idea. People — even road safety experts — tell of being surprised and glad to learn about it. And I am firmly in the “ounce of prevention” camp. As an urban cyclist myself, I’m all too aware of doorings, so this is an issue — and cure — close to my heart. I’m also quite concerned about air pollution and climate change, and know we will all benefit as more of us bike or walk. So, for me, it’s a very meaningful challenge.
NSC: Where have your efforts to spread the word about the far hand reach taken you?
MC: Literally, it’s taken me to my desk, bed or rocking chair. I do my part from home, by computer, laptop or phone, writing emails, tending my project’s website, and using Twitter — something I never expected to do!
Vicariously, it takes me around the world, especially into the worlds of bike and road safety. It’s introduced me to new people, pols and pals, activists and officials, survivors, their friends and families, graphic artists and road safety experts, and to new languages (I’ve become conversant in Google Translate). It’s introduced me to far-off cities and countries, established print and odd or upcoming e-media, videography, and pedagogy, all of which has been eye- and mind-opening.
NSC: Where have you made an impact?
MC: Credit must be generously shared. Certainly, my Dutch Reach Project website has made an impact, but many others have helped get the word out about the technique as well. The results: Word has spread to at least 39 countries in 28 languages. And I’m delighted that the National Safety Council now teaches the far hand reach in the 10th edition of its Defensive Driving Course.
NSC: What is your ultimate goal in spreading the word about the far hand reach?
That more and more drivers and passengers will learn it and do it. That school children will be taught it, along with other road safety skills and habits, and that it be included in all states’ driver’s manuals and tested for on their licensing exams and road tests.
Thinking ahead, I’d like the project and my website to find a more permanent and established home and keeper so it might outlive me if the world keeps finding it useful.
NSC: Anything else you’d like to share?
MC: If, like me, you were gobsmacked by the far hand reach, then challenge your friends with it, too. Ask them: “How do you open your car door? Using which hand?” Or simply: “Have you ever heard of the far hand — or Dutch — reach?”
Talking about the technique will help more people learn it and do it. Have fun and teach the reach!