For many cyclists on the W&OD trail, the crossing at Belmont Ridge Road is one of the scariest intersections to negotiate on the entire trail due to the speed of vehicles and the steady flow of traffic. For motorists, the zigzagged lines are confusing and the intersection appears after somewhat of a blind corner from at least one direction. The big question is when are motorists expected to slow down, stop or yield to cyclists and pedestrians?
“Belmont Ridge is probably one of the most dangerous intersections on the whole 50-mile W&OD trail,” explained Pat Turner, co-founder of Bike Loudoun, vice president of Friends of the W&OD Trail and member of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
For cyclists, there are small stop signs located along the trail at every intersection, forbidding them from crossing the road without first determining whether they can safely enter the crossing while providing on-coming traffic has enough time to safely yield. Yet the true purpose for these signs causes some confusion.
“I feel the signs are too ambiguous because they send two messages,” explained Bruce Wright of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling. ”They say you are supposed to stop and wait yet there is a crosswalk in front of you that implies motorists should yield to you.”
It is unclear to cyclists when they are safely and legally allowed to enter the crosswalk. The general understanding by cyclists is that they should only enter an intersection when a car has enough distance to stop.
“When I come to a road with a stop sign, I will stop, look to oncoming traffic in my nearest lane and then I will begin to enter the crosswalk if I am not disregarding traffic and if traffic has a chance to stop and yield to me,” explained Wright. “The law says I have to be in the crosswalk before the motorist needs to yield to me. Once I am in the crosswalk and a motorist approaches, they must stop and yield.”
Yet many motorists, knowing that cyclists have a stop sign on the trail, believe that cyclists should wait until all cars have exited the area before entering the intersection.
“If you were to stand at many intersections and wait for motorists to come to a full and complete stop, you would be waiting a very long time,” said Wright.
Due to this lack in clarity, individuals on both sides often disregard the laws of the road. While for cyclists the stop signs may seem annoying, they are the ones those signs are designed to protect. For a fast-moving cyclist, having to stop, clip out and wait until cars allow you to cross can be inconvenient, but it is lifesaving.
“There have been several fatalities on the trail and it was mostly because cyclists didn't stop,” lamented Turner. “I see that every day when I am out there on the trail. Every intersection has a stop sign but often cyclists blow through and never stop.”
Others point out that the respect issue cuts both ways.
“You would be a fool if you blew through that stop sign,” said local cyclist Dan Kalbacher. “I think cyclists don't always abide by those signs because they are not given the same respect by drivers. If motorists had a little more respect when they are out on the road then cyclists might be more respectful of the laws of the road.”
Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, agreed that one of the biggest safety concerns for cyclists on the trail is that they fail to abide by the stop signs. He provided some clarity into who has the right away in the intersection.
“Some of the issues we are dealing with are understanding the rules of the road, specifically when it comes to the crosswalks,” Troxell explained. “In circumstances where a bicyclist has come to a stop and begins to cross through the crosswalk, a vehicle must yield to the pedestrian or bicycle.”
However, many drivers aiming to be respectful of cyclists and pedestrians stop for bicyclists who are approaching the crosswalk or have not entered it. Though courteous, that's not a legal stop.
“Lawfully you are not allowed to stop in the roadway,” Troxell said. “If someone stops on the road to let an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian crossover, they can cause a rear end collision. No matter where you are, you cannot stop in the road way unless you are coming around a corner and you see someone already in the process of crossing the road.”
A scenario can also occur where a vehicle stops, giving a bicyclist a sense of security to begin crossing. However, vehicles traveling the other direction may not be tuned in with the driver that stopped, creating a dangerous gamble for those using the trail.
Until a better understanding is reached, intersections like Belmont Ridge remain dangerous. Cyclists get frustrated having to stop and wait, not knowing if they must wait 15 seconds or five minutes to get across. Combine that with the frustration cyclists experience when motorists fail to show respect by not slowing down when approaching occupied crosswalks, and the result is cyclists becoming more and more aggressive. The problem with this scenario is that cyclists are the only ones that truly pay if things go wrong.
My advice? Take the time to stop at intersections like Belmont Ridge. While it is frustrating, it quickly can take a fun Sunday pedal or a hard training ride and turn it into something much more ominous.