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Rules Of The Trail

What walkers, bikers and runners alike should know before hitting the W+OD

In my last column I mentioned how the rules of the road go out the window in parking lots. Well, that got me (and our editor) thinking that this would be a good opportunity to talk about the rules of the road... and the trail! Since many riders in Vienna prefer to stick to the trails when possible, I thought I'd start out with discussing trail rules and etiquette.

The primary trail that Vienna cyclists use is the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail (W&OD). Running 44.5 miles from Shirlington in the east to Purcellville in the west, the W&OD is a great route for both transportation and recreation. On a warm summer’s day, particularly on weekends, it can get quite crowded with cyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers, adults and children alike. It’s in everyone’s best interest for each of us to treat one another with respect and observe the rules and some simple courtesies out there.

First and foremost, STOP at all stop signs at road crossings! It’s the law, and it’s the smart and safe thing to do. You’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how many times I’ve seen someone blithely zoom right through a stop sign, narrowly missing getting hit by a car, surprising and scaring everyone. If there’s a stop sign at a road crossing, it’s YOUR responsibility and obligation to stop, NOT the opposing traffic’s.

Sometimes when you do pull up and stop at a crossing, a motorist will be polite and stop to allow you to cross. This is a wonderful thing, BUT be alert to what any OTHER motorist might do as well. More often than not, while a driver coming from one direction might stop to let you cross, one coming from the other does not. If you can make eye contact with the drivers of both vehicles, and get the attention of the driver who isn’t stopped, they may get the message and stop as well, but do not assume they will.

One trick that I’ve found handy is that if the driver who stops for me is coming from my left, and is in the lane nearest to the curb, if I slowly ease myself into the lane in front of them, other drivers often take the hint and also stop. Again, don’t assume they will, but check and make sure they see you and are stopping before you proceed.

Aside from road crossings, the biggest worry I think you have out there on the trail is passing and being passed by others as you ride.

Some simple rules to follow

  • First, unless you are passing someone else, stay over to the right hand side of the trail, so other folks can get around you if they are going faster.
  • Next, if you want to pass someone else, whether they are walking, rollerblading, cycling, or whatever, you are required by law and common decency to give an audible warning before you pass. You can use a bell or a horn of some type, or you can simply call out a warning. I generally prefer a bell, because most folks seem to get that bell bike, but a simple “passing on your left”, spoken loudly, firmly, and politely, works fine as well. Try not to bark it like an order, and adding a simple “Good morning!” or other greeting makes everyone happier.
  • As you’re passing, give the other person as wide a berth as possible... nobody likes feeling like they’ve just had a near miss! And only pass when there’s nobody coming from the opposite direction.

Now, if you’re tootling along at a mellow pace, and you hear a cyclist or other trail user call out a warning or ring a bell, what should you do? Personally, I really appreciate it if someone acknowledges my warning in some simple but clear way. A wave works just fine to let me know you heard me and are aware I’m about to pass. Why is that important? Well, we’ve all seen folks out there with earphones in their ears, or talking to their friends on the phone or in person, oblivious to anything around them. I never really know if they know I’m there, or if they’re going to do something unexpected, so it’s nice to get some signal that they’re aware.

Finally, it really comes down to common sense and courtesy. Stop and think about what you would like other trail users to do to make your time out there more pleasant, then do the same.

With a little care, courtesy, and patience, we can all have fun and get where we’re going.

Tim Fricker March 10, 2011 at 03:46 AM
I figured this topic might spur a lively discussion! I think there's a fine line (and a lot of room for interpretation) between "loud enough to be heard" and "annoyed shouting" when it comes to warning folks that you're going to pass. One reason why cyclists sometimes use a rather loud and peremptory tone is because we often have no idea if the person we are warning can and will hear us. I agree with Bligh that it's unsafe and unwise for cyclists to wear ear buds in both ears, but I'd also argue the same is true for walkers and runners, as an "audible warning" does no good if you can't hear over your music. At the very least, if you feel you must use ear buds or headphones, keep the volume low enough to hear outside sound. As for warning distance, that can be a tough call, and really does depend a lot on the speed you're moving. As a general rule, I'd say at least five bike lengths if you're going a casual speed, more if you're zipping along. And personally, I prefer "Passing on your left!" followed by "Good morning/afternoon/evening!" as I'm actually overtaking the person. Or when I have a bell at my disposal, I usually use that first, then call out if it seems I haven't been heard. For some reason a bell seems to say "bike" to folks, and seems somewhat friendlier than a spoken warning.
Jack Nelson March 10, 2011 at 04:08 AM
I am in full support of both comments so far. One thing I would add to the bike helmet comments is to wear the helmet properly, i.e., squarely on the head so that when standing erect the bottom of the helmet is horizontal to the ground. I see so many people, about 98 percent women, wear the helmet on the back of their heads so the front is facing skyward. I believe women do this to avoid messing up their hair, or to look a bit better while cycling. The helmet, in a fall, is next to useless in this position. The instructions that came with the helmet should address the proper way to wear the helmet. Jack Anderson's comments on bike riders is right on. Many of them, especially the speeders, believe the Trail was built for them, and parents with baby carriages, casual walkers, senior citizens out for a walk, etc., are interlopers. Many cyclists ride side by side frequently overlapping over the yellow line into the opposite lane. They do not expect to give way to the walkers, even to the point of being total boors and crude. I call it the "Me First" syndrome, i.e., meaning all the universe should bend to their desires and agenda. It is even more prevalent with vehicle drivers.
Tim Fricker March 10, 2011 at 05:07 AM
I'll agree that there are plenty of cyclists who misbehave on the trail, and some that seem to feel the trail is theirs and theirs alone, but let's not forget that walkers, runners, and others have been known to occupy the entire width of the trail. "Stay right except to pass" applies to ALL trail users, not just cyclists. I think more than anything else it just comes down to common courtesy and trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes, whether they be running shoes, hiking boots, cycling shoes or even flip flops!
David Whitmon March 22, 2011 at 09:56 AM
Great piece Tim. Great comments all the way around. It is proper trail etiquette for cyclists to move to the right when being passed by a faster cyclist but it does not mean that is is OK for a "fast" cyclist to BUZZ slower cyclists and or pedestrians. It just as frightening for a pedestrian to be BUZZED by a cyclist as it is for a cyclist to be BUZZED by a motor vehicle. When ever I ride on a bike path, rail trail, MUP, SUP, whatever, I know that I can't go as fast as if I were riding on the road way. I firmly call out to those I pass, cyclists or pedestrians, "Passing on you left, nice and slow". I slow down close to the speed of those whom I am passing. If your goal is to ride fast and hard stick to the roads.
David Whitmon March 22, 2011 at 10:28 AM
Way back in the late 60's, early 70's a number of high school kids from Marshall and McLean , including myself, hiked the W&OD rail road right of way in the process of putting together a feasibility report for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. My part of that report was the photographing of the deteriorating RR Stations and drawing pictures of these buildings refurbished and put to use as rest stops and facilities for the use of trail users. We had to swim across Goose Creek as there was no bridge at the time. It's come a long way since then.

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