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W&OD and Belmont Ridge: Bicyclists and Motorists Play Dangerous Odds

Zigzag lines should convey caution in motorists, while cyclists must obey stop signs. Both often shun such precautions.

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.

David Miller July 19, 2011 at 07:50 PM
I live in Ashburn and I bicycle and run on the W&OD regularly, including crossing Belmont Ridge at least twice during regular outings, as well as other crossings between Vienna and Purceville. The signs on the W&OD are very clear - runners, bikers, walkers, etc. on the W&OD MUST stop. Once they have determined it is safe to cross, they may do so. Most of the roads that the W&OD crosses have the same restriction, yet I have seen W&OD users blatantly ignore cross traffic and look surprised when the almost get hit. The notion that cars MUST stop when there is no controlling traffic signal/signage is foolish and dangerous on the part of W&OD users and the assumption that a crosswalk is a "safe zone" is ridiculous. If one were driving a car and crossed against a light and gets hit by a another vehicle that has the legitimate right of way, whose fault is it?? This is the exact case on on Belmont Ridge. Vehicular traffic on Belmont Ridge has the right of way, no question. This is also true at other crossings. That said, the best solution for this is an underpass/overpass. This will eliminate stupidity and foolish assumptions all the way around and ensure safety of all concerned.
Kelly Whelan July 19, 2011 at 08:50 PM
I bike the W&OD and I live off of Belmont Ridge. Can't count the number of times a car has come to a complete stop on Belmont Ridge for NO reason other than the crosswalk is there and there are bikes/walkers/bladers WAITING to cross. The vehicles have the right of way. Bicyclists need to stop and make sure it is SAFE to ENTER the CROSSWALK. Drivers should SLOW DOWN. There are kids on that trail, too and not always listening to their parent (I know, I know!) but you won't feel any better about hitting one just because you had the "right of way." I would support a traffic light/overpass/underpass. Unfortunately, a few people will probably have to get killed before the situation gets properly addressed.
Jack July 19, 2011 at 09:00 PM
It blows my mind when I see a soccer mom slam on their minivan's brakes to stop traffic and allow a cyclist to cross. That is DANGEROUS! And it is against the law (stopping on a highway). Remember, the cyclists have a STOP SIGN on the bike path, not the cars! The zig-zag lines are only there for caution (i.e. slow down) incase a cyclist runs the bike path stop sign. Please stop the STOPPING on the road.
Jack July 19, 2011 at 09:10 PM
too be clear, drivers should certainly stop for riders that are in the process of crossing (as the article explains) but stopping traffic is dangerous and i've seen 2 accidents from just that.
Bruce Wright July 19, 2011 at 09:26 PM
As the officer in the article notes, “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.” VA law is pretty clear on this: "No pedestrian shall enter or cross an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic." However, if a motorist has time to stop and a bicyclist or pedestrian enters the crosswalk, the motorist must yield. http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-924 A bicyclist is treated as a pedestrian according to VA law: "A person riding a bicycle, ... on a sidewalk, shared-use path, or across a roadway on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties of a pedestrian under the same circumstances." The complicating factor at Belmont Ridge is the speed limit. I believe it's greater than 35mph in which case VA code indicates that motorists aren't required to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. I'm surprised the officer didn't mentioned this.
Dusty Smith (Editor) July 19, 2011 at 09:29 PM
A grade-separated crossing has long been planned. It's just been a state funding issue. I'll try to get an update on that.
Neelofar Haram July 20, 2011 at 05:31 AM
Many streets and roads in Ashburn need separate lanes for bicyclists.
Selwyn Lawrence July 20, 2011 at 01:44 PM
An overpass is needed. I have seen several accidents there and most of the accidents are due to motorist stopping and being rear-ended. I can see the intersection from my home and I have noticed countless of accidents. What is the official number of accidents or deaths required to get an overpass?
Pat Shafer July 20, 2011 at 03:38 PM
Actually, the Code of Virginia requires drivers to yield to cyclists in crosswalks no matter what the speed limit is: http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?000+cod+46.2-924 "The driver of any vehicle on a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing such highway: 1. At any clearly marked crosswalk, whether at mid-block or at the end of any block; 2. At any regular pedestrian crossing included in the prolongation of the lateral boundary lines of the adjacent sidewalk at the end of a block; 3. At any intersection when the driver is approaching on a highway or street where the legal maximum speed does not exceed 35 miles per hour." The speed limit only comes up in item #3 in the list, but it's item #1 that requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks such as the one on Belmont Ridge. As Bruce said, cyclists in crosswalks have the same rights as pedestrians, so it is very clear from the Code that a cyclist in the crosswalk has the right of way, and motorists must yield.
Dusty Smith (Editor) July 20, 2011 at 03:45 PM
That's what we were to trying to indicate in the story. Drivers must yield to bicyclists who have already entered the crosswalk. However, drivers should not be stopping for bicyclists who are obeying the stop sign and have not entered the crosswalk.
MickeyP July 21, 2011 at 03:47 PM
I live off Ashburn Road and cross over the trail daily, I slow to 10 on approach and I ALWAYS pause to check because I have had too many cyclists blow through the stop sign. Plus, the side opposite Carolina Brothers needs to be mowed, BADLY! A person approaching on a bike cannot see traffic, just as a person in a car cannot see a bike behind all the weeds! Another concern is the cyclist/pedestrian issue. Just a few days ago a coworker was struck by a cyclist doing about 25, whom was looking down and not paying attention to what was ahead of him. His cycling buddy was, as they went around while loudly saying 'Passing-left', which the second cyclist, apparently, did not hear. Instead, he plowed straight in the back of my coworker, who was knocked to the ground and then trampled by the bike and cyclist as they too fell. Now 4 days later and he is still recovering from a severe concussion and brain swelling. All because someone 'didn't see him' - cyclists own words. I love the fact that there is a place for people to walk, run, skate and bike, I just wish people could be more responsible. Cyclists and Motorists alike. I am more than happy to STOP in the road and avoid hitting someone- the cars behind me be-damned - rather than hit a person and ruin a life! I mean really, is 20 seconds to much time to lose, rather than a precious life????
Kelly Whelan July 21, 2011 at 03:57 PM
@MickeyP- slow down, YES. But stopping on the highway is not safe. I understand you don't want to hit someone, (I don't either) but stopping when there is no light/stop sign/or person in the crosswalk impedes the flow of traffic is not safe for YOU or the people in the vehicles behind you. Maybe the solution is for the county to erect some stop signs for the cars and make it a four way stop?? EVERYONE stop and yield.
MickeyP July 21, 2011 at 04:30 PM
Ashburn & Belmost Ridge Roads are still considered County Roads. Also, when I go home is at peak traffic bike time so yes, I WILL STOP if I feel that there may be oncoming cyclists. Because none of us are mind readers or know the future, so I'd rather stop and be SAFE. This really does not hurt the flow of traffic because this a congested area anyway with Hay Road and Carolina Brothers, and if someone rearends me doing less than 25, then obviously they were tailgaiting to begin with. People need to understand that human lives are very much worth 'loosing a few seconds over'. I really worry about people when they start thinking of common courtesy and safety as a time waster.
Kelly Whelan July 21, 2011 at 04:35 PM
you are absolutely correct...on Ashburn Road. This is congested MOST of the time and the speed limit is 25. OFTEN, drivers have stopped for me (on bike waiting to cross) and I appreciate it! The more dangerous intersection is definitely Belmont Ridge and the W&OD.
MickeyP July 21, 2011 at 04:50 PM
I agree there, and with the trucks from the quarry and construction sites off BR, I do agree that there needs to be a bridge. But, alas there needs to be funding and planning for that to happen, so that would mean it's at least 5 years in the future. So what can be done in the meantime? I agree that Motorists should need to stop too, so I agree with the 4 way sign in the short-term.
LabDaddy July 21, 2011 at 07:11 PM
First, I do find it a little awkward to say that a) it is legal and required for cars to stop at a crosswalk if a pedestrian has a foot in the crosswalk but b) it is illegal for cars to stop at a crosswalk if a pedestrian has a foot just outside the crosswalk. An issue of safety is cited for the later; it is either safe or not safe: whether I have a foot on the crosswalk or just before it doesn't really matter. Having said that, there was recently a survey being done at the intersection, and one comment I made was to ensure that the plant growth be maintained at a level which would ensure visibility from the trail. Also, while a grade separation would be good, given funding issues, it may be a while before that happens. I don't see a stop sign as being practical on Belmont Ridge. Perhaps one or two things can be done though: 1) install a signal that is accuated by a trail user and 2) make the speed limit 35 mph for a quarter-mile before and after the intersection and enforce it.
Tracy Endo August 18, 2011 at 04:18 PM
I think the problem here is education! As a cyclist AND a driver I have been uneducated on both sides when it comes to the crossing at Belmont Ridge and the W&OD. I have recently written an article about this subject as it relates to the greater metro area and the general rules of the road for cyclist and drivers. http://www.examiner.com/triathlon-in-washington-dc/rules-and-general-etiquette-for-riding-and-driving-on-the-roads-the-dc-metro
starbucksaholic August 19, 2011 at 06:44 PM
I can't believe how many accidents I've seen at the Belmont and WO&D intersection - especially given the *flying* dump trucks coming to and from Luck Stone! Cars have the right of way, and should not stop. They should slow down, and be aware. I despise that intersection - whether I'm on my bike or in my car!
Caroline Kuhfahl April 28, 2012 at 01:46 AM
I believe that if someone is waiting to cross the road, and a driver has enough time to safely come to a stop (meaning they are traveling at a safe speed and there isn't a car too close behind them), that they should stop. I know how it is to wait 5 minutes or more while waiting for the cars to stop flying by so I can get across, and if no one stops traffic, the wait is often that long or longer! Also, if cars aren't stopped and waiting for me, I don't feel safe entering the intersection because cars often speed through this area. I hope some of you agree with me! :)
Paul Hogroian May 19, 2012 at 08:35 PM
The bicyclist has a stop sign; like a car, he must stop and wait until the road is clear. If the cyclist dismounts, he is a pedestrian; cars that approach the crosswalk should yield to pedestrians. Cyclists that dart out without stopping give the ones that do not a bad reputation.
Pat Shafer May 20, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Paul, actually, bicyclists do not have to dismount to have the right-of-way. The Code of Virginia is very clear about this: http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?000+cod+46.2-904 "A person riding a bicycle . . . on a sidewalk, shared-use path, or across a roadway on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties of a pedestrian under the same circumstances." Clearly, the code requires motorists to treat cyclists and pedestrians the same way at crosswalks--no dismounting needed.

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