Rules of the Road

Blame not an open and shut case for crashes caused by opening a car door into traffic

Blame for a crash caused by someone opening a car door into traffic can be split between the person opening the door and the driver of the car that hits the door.
Blame for a crash caused by someone opening a car door into traffic can be split between the person opening the door and the driver of the car that hits the door. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Question: I was driving down Holly Street when someone in a parked car opened their car door into the lane I was driving in. Fortunately there was no one in the lane next to me, and I swerved to avoid hitting the door. If I had hit the door who would have been at fault?

Answer: Would you believe there is a law written specifically for this exact scenario? Not only that, it’s also short and easy to understand. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about traffic law in this column.

Here’s what the Revised Code of Washington says about opening car doors: “No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side adjacent 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 adjacent to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.”

Clearly, if someone opens their car door into traffic and the door gets hit by another driver, the person who opened the door bears responsibility for the crash.

But, (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) it doesn’t mean the driver who hit the car door is automatically free from from responsibility.

How, you may ask, can the driver be at fault when the person who opened the car door obviously violated the law? Let me present a couple of scenarios.

Scenario No. 1: The driver is going too fast and therefore doesn’t have enough time to react and brake for the open door. This doesn’t necessarily mean exceeding the speed limit.

The 25 mph speed limit on a city street is often, but not always, an appropriate speed. A busy downtown street demands a lot of attention, and a driver may not be able to perceive all the hazards when traveling at the speed limit.

In fact, posted speed limits are just the second part of the traffic law on speed. The first part states that, “no person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.” The law actually expects drivers to travel at a speed that gives them time to respond to potential hazards.

It goes on to say, “In every event speed shall be so controlled as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person, vehicle or other conveyance . . .”

This law is often enforced at collisions in inclement weather when the driver was outdriving the conditions of the road, but the law doesn’t specify that the conditions are limited to weather.

Scenario No. 2: The driver isn’t giving the task of driving the due care that it requires. That’s pretty much the title of a law (Due Care Required) that essentially tells us that driving within the speed limit doesn’t automatically qualify anyone as a good driver. We also have to exercise caution as the situation demands. It’s sort of a law requiring us to keep our head in the game.

If you hit that car door because you were lost in thought wondering who Becca Kufrin will chose on this season of “The Bachelorette,” this law might apply.

I should point out that neither of these scenarios relieve the car door opener of fault for the crash; instead they include another person who is also partly responsible. Sometimes a crash is truly caused by just one person, but often in a two-vehicle collision, both parties bear some fault.

I’m also not predicting how law enforcement will choose to enforce the law in any future crash. While we can categorize crashes into certain types, each one is unique and the investigating officer makes the determination on what enforcement action to take based on the totality of the circumstances of the crash.

It’s possible that no matter how cautious you are, someone could open a car door in front of you at the last moment, leaving you no option but to hit the door, and in that situation the blame would be solely on the person who opened the door. But if haste or a lack of caution on the part of the driver contributes to the crash, both parties may share the blame.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.


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