Sometimes a phrase, image, or idea is so responsive to a situation or mood facing some portion of the population that it just goes viral, spreading seemingly by magic. But, in addition, there is always a hidden engine of someone’s energy (or some other investment of resources) turning the cultural gears. The “Dutch Reach” – a.k.a. “Far Reach”, “Far Hand Reach”, “Right Hand Reach”, “Reach Across”, and “Safety Exit”, among others – is a case in point. It is also an excellent example of how individual initiative still makes a difference even in today’s digital world.
Even though the mirror sticker says “watch for bikes” most of us forget to do it as we grab the door handle and push out. Dutch Reach is the simple idea that car drivers should open their door by reaching over with their right hand (passengers with their left hand), thereby turning their body and head so that they have a clear view of their outside mirror (and, if their bodies are young and flexible, perhaps the road behind them), making it much more likely that they’ll notice if a bicyclist is approaching. Waiting a few seconds before opening their door prevents them from accidently hitting the cyclist, knocking her into the street where she could – and tragically often does – get hit by a passing car or truck. “Dooring” is one of the most common causes of injury and even death for urban bike riders; nearly every cyclist has regular N.D.E.s – near door experiences. Dooring is a lot less likely to happen with the Dutch Reach.
REVIVING THE IDEA
The “reaching across” idea seems to have been popular in early 1970s Holland, during the Stop de Kindermord (“stop the child killing”) campaign against escalating traffic deaths, although it hadn’t yet been given its current catchy name. Nearly 45 years later, as the Boston area cycling community was getting repeatedly shocked by a series of killings by trucks and cars, the idea surfaced once again. The death of Amanda Phillips in Inman Square, near the Cambridge-Somerville border, pushed Dr. Michael Charney, a cyclist and a long-time activist, into a personal crusade to spread an idea he first saw mentioned in the on-line comments about Ms. Phillips death – to open car doors with the opposite hand -- which he saw as “an amazingly simple 'hack' to a dangerous problem.”
With his typically enormous energy, Charney began promoting the idea. His original goal was to get it included in the Massachusetts Driver’s Manual. He was still calling it the “far reach” as he called advocates, handed out flyers at meetings, lobbied a group advising the state Legislature on a package of road safety bills, and most fortuitously joined an on-line discussion group asking people for help coming up with slogans that could be placed on the mobile electronic flashing message boards that police departments use for road alerts. To fit in the limited text space the group came up with a set of Haiku-like poems:
Safer To Far Hand Open Car Far Hand
Open W Reach 2 W Right 4 Safer
Far Hand Open Dr Hand Car Exit
Reach Far Hand Open Reach To
Swivel To Open Door Wth Look Out
Look Out Is Safer Far Hand 4 Bikes
Working with each city’s Bike Committee, Dr. Charney sent the list of slogans to the Somerville and Cambridge police departments. Somerville's Deputy Chief of Police Steve Carrabino and staff saw the list, found the slogans catchy, and decided to put them on a couple of their message boards. As luck would have it, while stuck in traffic, Boston Globe reporter Steve Annear saw the sign, did a little research, and wrote a piece for the on-line edition, picking up the title “Dutch Reach” that Charney had begun using in his emails. Annear’s story got high levels of readership all day.
And then the dominoes began to fall: Ben Fox, a former Boston-based writer who follows the Boston Globe from Santa Fe, saw the story and pitched it to his editor at Outside Online Magazine. The magazine not only bought the story but had their videographer, Marie Sullivan, work with the editors to throw together a quick video: "The Dutch Reach - Safe For Work". Their video went viral, garnering over one million views in one month! Two weeks later, Marco Werman of WGBH & PRI/BBC World Service's The World produced a radio interview with Dr. Charney and distributed it to hundreds of stations across North America, linking to the video in its online/archived edition. The broadcast was soon relayed to Europe and beyond. A website was hurriedly put together as a repository of training ideas, promotional graphics and videos, and campaign history.
Charney writes, “I then took out 15 books on twitter, found 2 or 3 I could understand & started working it with my homemade PowerPoint graphics. By April 2017 I was hitting 35K impressions.” Charney “used Twitter and email and phone calls to spread the word very broadly. Twitter (and Google searches & Alerts of bike crashes & dooring related news articles) have enabled me to gather, employ, piggyback & project the Dutch Reach meme and teaching internationally and in multiple languages as I discover and recycle news and twitter evidence and links of its 'discovery' and promotion in other countries. I’ve sent out at times a dozen tweets using the same new graphic with scores of different hashtags, often linking to dutchreach.org but also to relevant articles referring to the method.”
The Campaign has continued to grow. After Charney approached the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicle’s Director of (driver) Licensing, the RMV decided to include a description of the Reach in its Driver’s Manual. Soon after, the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) listed the Dutch Reach on its Road Safety website. After the ruling Conservative Party’s Secretary of Transport, Chris Grayling, was reported by The Guardian newspaper as having doored a cyclist and then leaving without exchanging papers or reporting the incident to the police, a follow-up letter to the editor mentioned the Dutch Reach as a preventative strategy. News of the idea spread quickly via twitter, especially through the #roadsafety and #dutchreach hashtags – getting over 70,000 twitter impressions world-wide during one period. Dutch Reach is now so mainstream that it was included in a recent report by the USA’s national Governor’s Highway Safety Association.
WHY IT SPREAD
Bicyclists are vulnerable. And dooring is one of the most common causes of injury or death. As bicycling has become more popular in the US, UK, and Germany (it has long been a mainstream method of travel in Scandinavia and, by necessity, in developing countries) a large audience of people emerged, desperate for ways to reduce their feeling of helplessness in the face of driver carelessness. The idea has been floating around for a long time; now, the time is right. As Charney says, “I caught a hidden tsunami of cyclist alarm.”
The Dutch Reach idea is simple, obvious, easy to understand, encourages self-help rather than political or police action, doesn’t threaten car priority or require infrastructure changes, and doesn’t cost anyone anything. The Dutch Reach is a “what a great idea” pleasure to first hear about. The Dutch Reach helps those who worry about causing or suffering harm, acceptable to both bicyclists and car drivers: no one in their right mind wants to kill others or be killed. Opening the car door with the near hand is simply a thoughtless habit. The Dutch Reach simply swaps out one thoughtless habit for another far better thoughtless habit which, after enough repetitions, gets built into “muscle memory”.
In addition to the enormous commitment of time, energy, and creative effort Dr. Charney put into the campaign, his unique contribution was to give the idea a catchy name. As a nameless “common sense” habit it couldn’t be spread: “no one talked about it, heard about it, could search, find, study, teach or push it.” (On the Dutch Reach Project’s website, Charney adds that the unintended sexual slang association of the “reach around” phrase, teasingly hinted at in the first OutSide OnLine video through the addition of the “not safe for work” tag, additionally energized it’s spread.)
As Charney hoped, the Dutch Reach idea was rapidly legitimized through adoption by “official” organizations including a few legislators, the Canadian head of state, and countless bicycle, pedestrian and safe roads organizations. However, even more impactful, in fact what Charney believes was the most important factor in its spread, was the ubiquity of new telecommunication systems: tweets, videos, emails, blog entries, FaceBook posts, pod casts, radio interviews, even phone calls, and more – by now facilitating over 3 million views.
One of my father’s favorite sayings was that “chance comes to the prepared mind.” As a kid, my own more energetic and ego-centric mind had a very self-agency interpretation – we create our own luck. As I approach the far end of middle-age, I now have a more contextual interpretation, somewhat akin to the “resilience model of health” --- opportunities of various kinds seep out of our surroundings but we are only able to see and take advantage of those that we are prepared for. Some of this is just luck or connections. All the rest is hard work.
Michael Charney did the right thing at the right time. The most superficial lesson is that simple ideas with catchy visuals, slightly risqué titles, and some relevance to large numbers of peoples’ anxieties are most likely to become digital memes. A slightly more intimidating lesson is that it takes an enormous amount of personal energy and time to make it happen.
And spreading awareness is only the first step. Getting people to actually open the door with the far hand is another thing. Having the Dutch Reach included in the Massachusetts Drivers Manual and (theoretically) therefore part of what new drivers get taught and tested for during the driver test was huge win. Getting people who are already driving and used to opening car doors with their near hand to change is a culture-changing challenge. Some suggestions include putting a ribbon or rag on the inside door handle that will remind you to use the far hand and taping reminder notes on the dashboard. Consciously repeating the motion 5 or more times each time you get in the car will help drill it in. As with all behavioral-change “nudging” campaigns, people remember better when reminded by lots of social media messages, billboards, PSA announcements, and comments from friends. Picking up from the anti-smoking campaign, Charney says, “teach your kids and they’ll bug you to do it!”
Actual adoption will require significant follow-up. More states (and countries) need to put it in their driver training manuals and new drivers need to know that their compliance will be tested. Driver education programs need to teach it. We need radio and TV and Billboard PSAs. Electric road message boards need to flash reminders. Movies and TV shows need to begin showing their car-driving stars doing it, and the painful consequences of not doing it. Local advocacy groups need to remind their members and write newsletter articles about it.
Ok: you’ve now read this blog. And you know that https://www.dutchreach.org is full of material you are welcome to use in any non-profit way you want. (Want some decal designs? Check out the NY Bicycling Coalition ideas at https://www.dutchreach.org/dutch-reach-teaching-cards-reminders-stickers/ and https://www.dutchreach.org/breaking-news-2-2-2-2/ and https://www.dutchreach.org/stickers/. ) Now it’s your turn to spread the idea and share your victories….
Thanks to Michael Charney for reviewing an earlier draft, and starting the project!
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