Bike-car crash revives anger over Arlington's ‘intersection of doom’


Bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists intersect at North Lynn Street, the Custis Trail and Lee Highway near the Key bridge in Rosslyn. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

May is National Bike Month, but the celebration is off to an inauspicious start in Arlington, where a resident says she was ticketed in her hospital room after being hit by a car.

The incident has revived anger in Rosslyn over what cyclists call “the intersection of doom” — the point where Lee Highway meets North Lynn Street, and bicyclists coming off the Custis Trail face off against two lanes of cars turning right off Interstate 66 onto the Key Bridge.

Lindsey Kelley says she was biking through the crosswalk at the intersection last Monday evening when she was hit by a gold sedan. The 23-year-old never spoke to the woman who hit her, but a man in a black SUV stopped to reprimand her, she said, telling her that bikes should be on the sidewalk, that she came out of nowhere and that the crash was her fault. A U.S. Park Police officer asked whether she was hurt and needed an ambulance; she said yes.

She saw the officer again later, when he came to her hospital room and gave her a $70 ticket for “disregarding traffic signs or road markings.”

“He said, ‘Don’t get your blood pressure raised; here’s your ID and here’s your ticket. Now let me explain why I’m giving it to you,’ ” Kelley recalled. He said a witness had told him that she was not in the crosswalk when she was hit. She protested, she said, and he told her he had not been there to see the crash.

Tricky crossing for cyclists in Rosslyn

Kelley, a longtime bike commuter who just started working at an international nonprofit organization in the District, suffered a sprained wrist and a mild concussion in the accident. She said she had three flashing lights on her bike when she was hit. She had taken a bike safety class with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). She took a picture after the crash, before the ambulance arrived, of her bike lying in the crosswalk.

A Park Police spokeswoman confirmed that Kelley was ticketed for riding outside the crosswalk but did not offer further comment on the incident. Police said they could not immediately provide additional information, including whether the driver was cited.

It is not the first time that a biker has been hit at that spot. ArlNow.com, which first reported Kelley’s accident, has recorded several such incidents — including three in one week in 2011. In 2010, a cyclist said he was hit at the same intersection and given a warning by Arlington County police.

The problem, cyclists say, is that they have the green light to continue from the Custis Trail to the Mount Vernon Trail or the Key Bridge by crosswalk at the same time that cars are able to turn right off the highway. Bikers are on a park trail, but drivers are crossing the trail from an enclosed, high-speed interstate highway.

About 1,700 people bike on the Custis Trail on a typical weekday, according to Arlington County statistics. At the height of the morning rush, 600 cars an hour turn right onto the Key Bridge, and 250 bicyclists cross Lynn Street in the same period.

“Everyone I know who has gone through there regularly has had very close calls,” said Gillian Burgess, a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee and founder of the family riding group KidicalMass Arlington. A heavy flow of traffic makes it hard for cars to turn there, she said, and creates a peril for bikers and pedestrians. “It’s a frustrating situation for motorists. The problem is, when they get frustrated, they put other people’s lives in danger.”

Arlington police are aware of the problem and conduct safety education campaigns in the area as well as issuing tickets, spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said. Burgess said she has been cut off by cars, with police officers looking on and taking no action. “The officers think it’s so bad that they don’t ticket most of the time,” she said.

In the past year, police say, 11 crashes occurred at the intersection; 330 people were cited for infractions. Of those citations, 194 were for failure to obey traffic signals, and 51 were for improper turning. (The statistics are not broken down by car or bike, Sternbeck said.) Only two citations were issued for failure to yield to a pedestrian.

Advocates have floated various ideas for dealing with the problem, including creating a tunnel under Lynn Street, relocating the I-66 off-ramp or rerouting the trail around the hot spot. Realize Rosslyn, a county framework for the area’s future, includes a commitment to “improve the safety and efficiency of the intersection of Lynn St, Lee Highway and the Custis Trail to clearly separate transportation modes and provide safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists.” There are no details; the issue was added to the plan after bike advocates protested its absence.

Larry Marcus, head of transportation engineering and operations for Arlington, said the county is focused on improving education and law enforcement in the area. The county also has discussed extending the street curbs and adding traffic and trail signals to improve visibility and flow. Beyond that, a solution becomes complicated. Redesigning the intersection is difficult for the same reason that crossing it is — a highway meets a local road and a national park trail. The Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Park Service and Arlington County all have to agree on a remedy.

“We don’t own that whole intersection,” said Marcus, a cyclist who rides through the critical junction several times a week. “We all just have to be very careful.”

He called Kelley after her accident to get her perspective.

Cyclists’ being ticketed after crashes isn’t uncommon, according to advocates. Shane Farthing, WABA executive director, noted that in many instances, the police talk to motorists first because bikers frequently are taken away for medical attention.

Kelley plans to fight the ticket. She says she’ll keep traveling that route — there’s no practical alternative — unless her boyfriend takes her parents up on an offer to, for $500, run over her bike with his car.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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