AL BAKER – Cyclists sometimes call it “the door prize,” or simply being “doored.”
And in a city where the tension between two- and four-wheeled transportation devices can sometimes seem as shrill as the sound of squeaky brakes, accounts of collisions between bicyclists and drivers are passed around on blogs, in newspapers and among members of various cycling clubs and organizations.
One compilation of episodes in which drivers opened the doors of their parked vehicles into the path of oncoming cyclists can be found on BicycleSafe.com and includes details of cases from places as diverse as India, Canada, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco.
Among the harrowing accounts is one about Dana Laird, 36, a “doctoral student at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts,” who was killed in 2002 as she rode along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass.
It said: “A motorist opened the door of a parked sport utility vehicle across the bike lane in which Ms. Laird was traveling. Ms. Laird swerved and lost control. According to eyewitness accounts, she yelled, `flew through the air,’ and apparently struck the door. She went under the right rear wheels of a passing transit bus, and she was killed instantly.”
Such collisions are not foreign in New York City — and they can lead to occasional charges being lodged by the police or prosecutors, depending on the circumstances.
In a crash on Atlantic and Washington Avenues in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, a driver opened her car door into the path of Jasmine Herron, who was bicycling by, sending her into an oncoming bus that struck and killed her, officials said. Among the charges filed against the driver, Krystal Francis, was “opening and closing vehicle doors,” a violation of Section 1214 of the State Vehicle and Traffic Law, according to a criminal complaint from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
The charge popped up again, this time phrased as “unsafely exiting a vehicle,” in a crash in East Harlem on Friday. In that case, the driver of a 2008 Honda was issued with a summons for “unsafely exiting a vehicle” for opening his car door and causing a bicyclist to fall into the path of an oncoming truck, which killed him, the police said.
The Honda driver, who was not identified by name, was in his parked car and opened his door as the rider, Marcus Ewing, 27, was pedaling his Cannondale bicycle eastbound on East 120th Street, just west of Third Avenue, about 8 a.m., the police said.
The driver of the truck that hit Mr. Ewing was issued five summonses, for equipment violations.
As for the driver whose door knocked over Mr. Ewing, the charge he faces — unsafely exiting a vehicle — “is a V.T.L. traffic summons” (Vehicle and Traffic Law) and not one found in the New York State penal code, according to one city official.
Another official said such citations were aimed at preventing drivers from opening their car doors into traffic in ways that would create “dangerous conditions for bicyclists or motorists” coming by at the same time.
“You cannot just swing your car door open,” the official said.
“It is not that often that officers issue those kinds of tickets,” the official said. And sometimes, it requires a patrol officer to witness the offending behavior for it to rise to a summons, or an inquiry by the Accident Investigation Squad when a death is involved. Then, that sole charge can carry similar penalties to other traffic violations, like going through a red light, the official said.
Whether termed “unsafely exiting a vehicle” or something else, Nick Cantiello, a spokesman for the State Department of Motor Vehicles, sent along a copy of Section 1214 of the State Vehicle and Traffic Law. It said:
Opening and closing vehicle doors. No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so, and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.
Mr. Cantiello said the fine for the violation could be as much as $150. Asked about the number of “doorings” — in which people open a door into a bike or a car — he said that as of Oct. 22, there had been 147 tickets issued for that offense around the state.
In all of 2009, he said, there were 179; in all of 2008 there were 207; and in 2007 there were 164.
“So it’s not a lot,” he said. “You can see there’s not a real trend there.”
A spokesman for the New York Police Department said the department did not keep statistics on such incidents around the five boroughs.
Noah S. Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit pedestrian and bicycle transportation group financed by members, said the issue of cyclists being hit by doors had long been a concern.
“It’s always been a top complaint and, anecdotally, a major contributing factor to crashes in New York City,” he said. “If you talk to anyone who’s ridden a bike in New York, everyone has a story about, at best, narrowly avoiding a car door that’s been swung open in their path and bike riders quickly learn that one of the safest ways to ride is to take the whole lane, so they are not biking in the door zone.”
Of Fees for Experts
There it was in black and white on Page 103 of a new study critiquing the Police Department’s controversial stop-question-and-frisk policy: the hourly rate a Columbia Law Professor received for his work.
“I have been compensated for this work at the rate of $350 per hour,” the professor, Jeffrey A. Fagan, wrote. There was no total, but one can imagine it was high, as he spent 15 months over three years on the project.
He even scribbled in the date, as another contemporaneous bit of evidence: Oct. 15, 2010.
The study — for the Center for Constitutional Rights — found that in more than 30 percent of the street stops, officers either lacked the kind of suspicion necessary to make a stop constitutional or did not include enough data on the stop to determine whether it was legally justified.
Eleven days later, when Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly was asked for his response, he took the occasion to point out that Professor Fagan was paid well. (Still, he overinflated the price a bit, asserting that the professor was paid $375 an hour.)
“This is a document prepared for plaintiffs who paid that sort of money to have this document prepared,” Mr. Kelly said. “When you pay that sort of money, you’re going to get a view point that pretty much goes along with your view point.”
Mr. Kelly called Professor Fagan’s 217-page study (pdf) “an advocacy paper.”
“I wouldn’t take the position that this is an objective document,” he said.
But wait. Mr. Kelly acknowledged that the city was paying its own expert, Dennis C. Smith, a professor at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service of New York University, to write its own study. He said Professor Fagan “had three years to develop” his study, while the city had “30 days to respond.” His point: It will cost less money.
Questions about Professor Smith’s fee hung in the air: At what hourly rate was he being paid? Over what time? And by whom?
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, responded in an e-mail: “unknown at this hour — but not $375 an hour for three years.” In another e-mail, on Wednesday, he said Professor Smith was not paid by the Police Department and referred questions to the city’s Law Department, which did not immediately respond to questions.
Professor Fagan, in this current effort, has been paid for about 15 months’ worth of work, according to people familiar with the arrangement. But he has done research, and published on the subject, for more than a decade. Before beginning on his work on the current study, he worked for the City Council under a contract to Columbia University, with the payments going to the school. It was the same arrangement when he worked for the state attorney general’s office under a contract to Columbia as part of that office’s 1999 study of the issue.
Some critics and law enforcement analysts raised the same sort of questions when the Police Department — through the Police Foundation — commissioned the nonprofit Rand Corporation in early 2007 for an independent study of the stop-and-frisk issue.
The department was under fire because the increasing number of street stops were leading some critics to suggest that minorities were unfairly singled out, a charge that the police have repeatedly denied. The Rand study (pdf), in November 2007, found no racial profiling being done by police officers in New York.
At the time, the study was said to cost in the six figures — and at least $120,000 — a bill footed by the foundation, a charity that supports the department. The police on Wednesday reiterated that figure.