Rules of the Road

You may want to incorporate this technique next time you open your car door into traffic

What is the ‘Dutch Reach’ and how can it prevent accidents?

Drivers reach across their bodies and open the car door with their right hand. This simple movement forces the driver to turn to the left, scanning the side-view mirror and looking behind the vehicle.
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Drivers reach across their bodies and open the car door with their right hand. This simple movement forces the driver to turn to the left, scanning the side-view mirror and looking behind the vehicle.

Question: What is the Dutch Reach?

Answer: I’m going to guess that most people have never heard the term “Dutch Reach.”

I hadn’t heard it until about a week ago — I was in a meeting when someone mentioned it as part of a conversation that offered very little context. The meeting went on and I was left wondering, so this week I’m both asking and answering the question.

As the Dutch Reach was new to me, I thought it would be interesting to ask some friends, without giving them any clues, what they thought the Dutch Reach might be. Here’s what I got:

“It sounds like a nautical term.”

“Maybe it has something to do with architecture.”

“I’d guess that it’s related to explorers.”

“Some sort of a cleaning tool.”

For my part, I thought it sounded like a mildly inappropriate hug.

All of those answers are incorrect, as you might easily conclude given that this is a column about traffic safety.

The Dutch Reach is actually an unusual way of opening a car door (unusual to anyone who isn’t from the Netherlands, at least.)

Working from the driver’s position, to do the Dutch Reach you open your door with your right hand instead of your left hand. The purpose of the Dutch Reach is to physically turn your body toward the street next to you when you’ve parallel parked, so that you naturally check the lane for cars and bikes.

Sound awkward? I tried it, and yeah, it’s a bit cumbersome at first. But it works.

If you’re wondering about the value of this technique, just spend a few minutes on YouTube looking at car door crashes. I couldn’t watch for long; it’s just too agonizing. Cars, motorcycles, cyclists and even the person opening the door — they all get banged around.

Clearly, a lot of drivers could benefit from adopting a new method of opening their car doors. This technique is especially valuable when parking along a narrow road or next to a bike lane.

In some locations, cities have added bike lanes to existing roads by squeezing them between shoulder parking and the lane of travel. This results in a too-narrow bike lane that is completely blocked when a parked motorist opens a car door, often called a door-zone bike lane.

Many cyclists know it’s not safe to ride in that kind of bike lane, but also feel pressure from drivers to use the lane anyway, because riding far enough to avoid getting hit by a car door means riding in the lane for traffic.

By using the Dutch Reach you can make sure you see any oncoming cyclists before you open your door in front of them.

We often attribute things to the wrong nation; French fries are from Belgium, Canadian bacon is from England, Swiss cheese is American and Mexi-fries are from Taco Time.

But the Dutch Reach really is Dutch. It’s called the Dutch Reach because it’s part of driver training in the Netherlands, something they’ve been teaching for 50 years.

I was curious as to how many Dutch drivers use the technique once they’ve passed their driver test. Not having an opportunity to travel to the Netherlands this week, I instead checked the internet for comments from Dutch drivers.

It turns out that not all Dutch drivers use the Dutch Reach, but they’ve incorporated the philosophy behind it of always doing a visual check before opening their door.

Whether you adopt the Dutch Reach or stick with your current method of opening a car door, the responsibility is the same. Washington law prohibits drivers from opening their doors into adjacent traffic unless it is safe to do so.

If you already have a routine that involves checking your mirror and looking over your shoulder before opening your door, that’s great.

If you’re more the kind of person that gets easily distracted by your to-do list the moment you park or gets so engrossed in conversation with your passenger that you don’t check before opening your door, the Dutch Reach is probably a good habit to pick up.

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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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