On Monday morning, Ita Lapina was out for a walk on Four Mile Run Trail. According to the police, a cyclist travelling in the same direction rang his bell and called out “to your left!” as he attempted to pass. Lapina stepped to the left as she turned towards the cyclist, who struck her. She fell, hitting her head on the trail. She succumbed to her injuries Monday evening.
This is my worst trail nightmare. Nobody seems to have done anything extraordinarily unreasonable, and yet someone died.
We’ll likely never know with certainty all of the facts surrounding this collision, so I’m not interested in examining and assigning specific blame in this case. But I am interested in emphasizing just how frequently similar circumstances occur on the trails. This happens despite everyone acting in a way that seems completely reasonable to them.
Last year, I wrote about some of the basic rules for sharing our trails. The trails have always been intended to be used by pedestrians and cyclists alike, and each group has an obligation to share it with the other. But these groups – by nature of the way they’re using the trails – have different responsibilities when it comes to accomplishing that sharing.
For pedestrians, this generally means sticking to the right, not stacking up three wide across the trail, and keeping your leashed dogs to the right, too. Pedestrians need to move in a way that presumes that there are other, higher-speed, users of the trail.
A critical part of sharing the trail with others is being predictable. Sudden moves left — or U-turns, joggers — can put pedestrians in the unavoidable path of even the most conscientious cyclists. That pedestrians have the right of way does not entitle them to suddenly put themselves in the path of other users.
Cyclists, understand this: You are to pedestrians on the trail as cars are to you on the road. This means that you have the responsibility – as the ones who can do the most damage – to not only observe the pedestrian’s right of way on the trail, but to anticipate and avoid dangerous situations. If that means slowing to a crawl for a few moments because you think that couple ahead of you might take the left turn without looking — do it. You know how motorists can wait for a few seconds when you need to take the lane? Same thing here.
Cyclists are also in the driver’s seat when it comes to signaling a pass. My recommendation from last year remains the same – get and use a bell. They’re cheap, they’re easier to hear than voice warnings, and they’re not subject to misinterpretation.
What if you don’t have a bell? Get one. If you can afford a bike, you can afford a bell. But, acknowledging the reality that not everyone will, calling out a pass is still free and appreciated by many trail users. Most regular trail cyclists have come to engage in their own profiling of pedestrians who need a warning, but I think it’s important to not let that replace alertness.
Finally, sport cyclists, the Arlington sections of the Custis, Washington & Old Dominion, and Mount Vernon trails are simply no good for real training. Take that to the streets. I know that creates its own set of problems, but that’s no reason to make other trail users suffer speedy recklessness. You may feel like you can safely pass a pedestrian at 20 mph, but one wrong step, and...
My bell recommendations can be found here. And yes, there’s a perfectly good solution for racing bikes in there, too. I have a bell on every bike that sees the pavement.
Bike Arlington has some good trail safety tips here.
On a happier note, you’ll want to be in town this Saturday. As WABA puts it: “The New Belgium Brewing Company, makers of Fat Tire Ale, and WABA are hosting the biggest, most fanciful, bicycle celebration of all time. And for the first time ever it’s coming to DC!” Get more information about this here.
Don't forget, Two Wheel Tuesdays are still happening in Courthouse. Check out the full summer schedule here.