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Newton cyclist's 'dooring' allegation sparks debate about police response

Posted by Deidre Fernandes  September 7, 2012 05:02 PM

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A Newton police officer's response to a biking incident earlier this week has triggered a firestorm of criticism from cyclists and spurred the Newton Police Department to take a closer look at the case.

It all happened during Molly Schaeffer’s usual commute home from work this past Tuesday. Schaeffer, a software management consultant and grandmother of two, said she rides her bike to work daily.

But as she traveled down Beacon Street toward Hammond Street, she said, an old Mercedes pulled up in front of her. While the car was moving, according to Schaeffer, one of the passengers on her side opened the door and yelled “doored.”

Schaeffer said she didn’t hit the open car door on her bike, but the potential for an accident shook her. She said she got the Mercedes’ license plate, pulled onto a side road, and called the police.

But when the police officer arrived, he told her he couldn’t do anything, Schaeffer said. The officer also wasn’t aware initially of what “doored” meant, Schaeffer said.

“They just don’t get it,” she said.

An increasing number of Newton residents are riding bikes, but the city doesn’t have the infrastructure -- either bike lanes or awareness of road rules -- to make cyclists feel safe, Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer sent e-mails to both interim police chief Howard Mintz and the city’s Board of Aldermen about her experience. Her husband posted what she said happened on local cycling listservs.

Mintz said he received several emails this past week about the case.

The police officer who responded has been on vacation and his supervisor will talk to him about the case when he returns, Mintz said.

But Newton has increased training for officers regarding bike-related violations by motorists and cyclists, Mintz said.

Last month the city conducted a special patrol and issued citations for violations. On Thursday, one officer on special patrol along Beacon Street issued citations to 17 motorists and two cyclists, Mintz said.

“I’m sorry and I apologize for her scare,” Mintz said. “We’re taking this seriously….It’s a new area.”

If the driver and passengers of the car can be identified, they could face assault charges, Mintz said.

“The matter is not closed,” he said.

Still, Schaeffer said she isn’t confident that the men who allegedly opened the car door will face any punishment, because of the time that has passed. She’s letting the police handle the investigation for now, but Schaeffer said she may consider filing complaints in district court.

Schaeffer said she hopes her case illustrates the need for police and city officials to be more aggressive about ensuring cyclists are safe.

In late August, a bicyclist was struck and killed in Wellesley, allegedly by an 18-wheel truck. Police are still investigating the crash and no charges have been filed. Since then, Schaeffer said, the biking community has been nervous about local roads.

“Nothing is happening, while more and more people are cycling,” she said. “Somebody is going to get killed, it’s just a question of timing and bad luck.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.

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