For safety's sake, communication must go both ways

By Robert Thomson
Thursday, May 20, 2010; SM25

May is National Bike Month, and Friday is the annual Bike to Work Day. I think that's part of the reason I've been hearing from many of you about the relations between cyclists and other travelers. That, plus the opening of new lanes and trails, and, unfortunately, the death of a cyclist hit by a military truck during last month's nuclear summit.

Many writers call for better communication on all sides.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As a regular bicycle commuter into the District via the Capital Crescent Trail who constantly rings a bell to warn of my approach, I read the letter [Dr. Gridlock, May 6] concerning the ringing of bicycle bells with great interest.

Like many others, I am appalled at some of the selfish, dangerous behavior of other trail riders that I see every day. The local dialogue on cyclist/pedestrian safety, however, always seems to single out cyclists. Safety on the trail is a two-way street.

Most runners and walkers appreciate when I ring my bell several seconds before reaching them from behind, and often give me a wave to let me know they are aware of my presence. That allows me to pass with confidence, knowing that they will not suddenly turn and end up right in my path, as happens at times, despite my warning.

Some who do that are listening to an iPod while they run and apparently do not hear the bell. Like cyclists, they need to be able to hear approaching sounds to protect themselves and others. If they must listen to music, they have to make sure to look back before making sudden moves.

Groups of joggers will spread out across three-fourths of the trail, and even when they see me approaching from the opposite direction, do not move over onto their side of the dotted line.

A few months ago, I rang my bell when coming up behind a person walking a dog. To make sure the person knew what was happening, I also shouted, "passing on your left, please." Instead of making sure that the dog remained on a short leash, the person let the leash out, and the dog cut across the trail. I had to swerve and ended up crashing.

All cyclists need to exercise care and courtesy and put safety first. But we can't make the trail safe by ourselves. Pedestrians must use care and courtesy, too, if we all are going to be safe.

Bruce Goldberg

Silver Spring

DG: Goldberg sees the benefits of two-way communication, and the problems that occur when we get wrapped up in our own world at the wrong moment. I enjoy walking with my iPod, listening to an audio book. I keep the volume low, so I can pick up the sound of approaching travelers of all sorts. I also move my eyes around to avoid unpleasant encounters. Is that safe enough, or should I unplug?

Male pattern?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thursday morning [May 6], long before I read the paper, I posted this on Facebook:

"Jogging this morning on the trail along the Potomac: Without exception every woman on a bike who passed warned me with 'on your left.' Not one man on a bike gave any warning other than the breeze I felt as they passed me -- some really close. I was already running on the very edge of the path. Hmmph."

Although most cyclists gave me a fairly wide berth, a few were reckless in their speed and passing.

Dabney Cortina


DG: The only distinction I've noticed among cyclists is this: I've had very good experience sharing pathways with commuting cyclists. Almost every one I've encountered knows what he or she is doing, communicates with walkers and treats them courteously.

And joggers, too

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Let me second the complaints concerning cyclists. My wife's experience with cyclists echoes the same safety and courtesy failures as those of your writer.

To this list, let's add joggers who approach from behind. They give no notice of their approach, nor do they slow down when passing seniors. By the way, shouldn't bicycles be classified as vehicles and be restricted to the street?

Milan Valuch

The District

DG: The laws governing cyclists vary across the region, but when they are in the streets, they must obey traffic laws. Area jurisdictions, including the District, do allow cyclists on sidewalks, with some restrictions.

The District bars cyclists from sidewalks in the central business district, but a riding cyclist would be hard-pressed to figure out what the boundaries are: Massachusetts Avenue NW, Second Street NE/SE, D Street SE/SW, 14th Street NW, Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street NW.

Dueling concepts

Which of these views draws your support?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have bicycled 70,000 miles over the past 35 years, almost all of it around Washington. I am that rare cyclist who obeys all of the traffic laws, including stopping at red lights. I heartily endorse increased enforcement of the laws. Cyclists who claim the rights of drivers must accept the responsibilities as well.

When riders act randomly and unpredictably, drivers can't know how to deal with them.

Bruce Borchardt

The District

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your May 9 column contained a letter from Pat Taylor discussing bicycle safety. The letter said that "many cyclists totally ignore stop signs and stoplights."

A bicycle rider can see and hear cross traffic much, much better than the driver of an automobile, and not stopping at a stop sign when there is no cross traffic is clearly not a safety hazard. The state of Idaho allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs. Perhaps the D.C. government could adopt these rules as another way to encourage bicycle riding.

Jim Edmonds

Arlington County

DG: As a cyclist, I certainly understand the frustration involved in powering down for a stop sign or light at a deserted intersection and then having to power up again. The Idaho statute acknowledges the realities of human behavior while still encouraging safety at intersections.

Still, I'm not convinced that just because cyclists can see and hear traffic better means they will act more responsibly than drivers do when traffic is present. I wouldn't lift the speed limits just because many drivers speed, and I'm not sure I would ease the stop laws for one class of travelers. It would rely too much on their personal judgments.

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